PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- It's a good thing Rutgers played an FCS team Thursday night.
The Scarlet Knights opened their 2010 season at home versus Norfolk State, a program they drubbed 59-0 three years ago. The game wasn't nearly as lopsided this time around. The final score was 31-0, but that hardly reflects how Rutgers played.
Rutgers led only 6-0 at halftime after a very sloppy first 30 minutes. Quarterback Tom Savage was sacked three times by the Spartans, the Scarlet Knights committed four penalties and place-kicker San San Te missed two of his four field goal attempts.
The second half didn't begin much better. Running back Joe Martinek was stuffed on fourth-and-1 on the Scarlet Knights' first possession after the break. But eventually the Rutgers running game wore down its overmatched Football Championship Subdivision opponent, racking up 184 of its 268 total rushing yards after intermission.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano focused on the positives after the game.
"A great learning experience for our guys," Schiano said. "When you learn and you win, that's good. And that's what we did -- we learned and we won. [Although] it wasn't pretty at times."
The Rutgers offense in particular struggled. The O-line was probably the team's biggest concern coming into the season, and that will continue after it relinquished the three sacks in the first half. On the second one, Savage got hit on the back of the head and was slow to get up.
The receivers also had problems getting open at times -- Savage was forced to run the ball or throw it away on several occasions after dropping back to pass.
Savage finished 10-for-19 for 148 yards. The sophomore QB admitted to being nervous before Thursday's game, even though he started every game but one last season as a freshman.
"Something about this game -- you can ask anyone, I was just nervous," Savage said. "I'm glad I got it out of the way now."
Martinek had trouble finding daylight early on, but later in the third quarter he did break off a 35-yard run that led to Rutgers' first touchdown, which he scored on the next play. Martinek ended up with good numbers: 109 yards rushing on 20 carries.
Rutgers' second tailback, freshman Jordan Thomas, also was a bright spot, especially early. On the Scarlet Knights' second play from scrimmage, he took a swing pass and sprinted up the sideline for 13 yards. He also had a 12-yard run in the first quarter, flashing his big-time speed. He finished with 13 carries for 47 yards and two catches for 19 yards.
The other heralded freshman, wide receiver Jeremy Deering, wasn't as impressive. He didn't record a single catch and got flagged for two penalties in the first half -- one for holding, one for being an ineligible receiver downfield.
"Offensively, you know what, I think we just got a little cute in the beginning," Schiano said. "Our guys were racing a little bit to make plays."
The Rutgers defense was much better than the offense -- the D pitched a shutout, even if it was against an inferior opponent. The Knights surrendered a couple of big plays in the first half but then tightened up things considerably. Overall, they were stout, limiting the Spartans to 25 rushing yards on 24 carries and 156 yards of total offense.
Special teams were a mixed bag. Te connected on 31- and 20-yard field goals but missed from 40 and 47 yards. The special teams unit did make arguably the biggest play of the game, a blocked punt by Brandon Bing that was returned for a touchdown by Joe Lefeged to put the game effectively out of reach at 21-0.
The bottom line is, the Scarlet Knights were disappointing in their first game for the third straight season. Two years ago, they lost 24-7 at home versus Fresno State. Last season, they got crushed 47-15 at home by Cincinnati. If they hadn't played an FCS team Thursday night, they likely would have lost this one, too.
This is a young team that clearly still has a lot of work to do if it wants to contend in the Big East.
Schiano seems well aware of that yet remained optimistic after the game. "[I saw] a young football team that didn't panic," he said. "A lot of times when you get a young group like that and you're in a situation like that, they can run for the hills. And they didn't; they just kept doing the best they could, and [the game] turned."
The next two games will be much more challenging. Rutgers plays at Florida International, which almost beat the Scarlet Knights last season, on Sept. 11. Then they host nationally ranked North Carolina on Sept. 25.
"Next week is definitely a step up in competition," Schiano said. "It should be quite a challenge."