EAST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Rutgers had a chance to do something very special on Saturday.
The Scarlet Knights, members of the Big East Conference since 1991, had a chance to finish in first place for the first time.
Sure, they would have had to share the spot with Louisville, and perhaps another school or two as well. And they would have needed lots of tiebreaker help to get the conference's automatic BCS berth. But with a win over 4-6 UConn, Rutgers would have earned the title of champion.
Instead, the 2011 regular-season finale will be remembered as a disaster.
"Well, very disappointed," were the first words from Rutgers coach Greg Schiano in his postgame news conference, following the Scarlet Knights' 40-22 defeat. "Disappointed for our players, disappointed for our fans, disappointed for Rutgers University, for the state of the New Jersey."
As for Schiano himself? "I'm awful disappointed right now," he said. "Feels like you got punched in the stomach about 50 times."
Don't be fooled by the final score -- this game was a rout, and it started early. Rutgers received the opening kickoff, and on the third play from scrimmage running back Jawan Jamison fumbled -- the ball was recovered by UConn at the Rutgers' 24-yard line.
Two snaps later, the Huskies were in the end zone, after UConn running back Lyle McCombs found gaping holes on back-to-back plays.
On its next possession, Rutgers waited until third down to give the ball away, courtesy of a Chas Dodd interception.
Six snaps later, it was 14-0 UConn, after a touchdown run by quarterback Scott McCummings.
"It seemed like just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong," said Schiano.
In the second quarter, on second-and-10 deep in Rutgers territory, Dodd and center Caleb Ruch lost the ball on a botched snap under center. UConn defensive tackle Kendall Reyes scooped up the pigskin and ran it in for a 21-3 lead -- the largest deficit Rutgers had faced all season.
"If you're asking is there any reason why we turned the ball over, I don't know the answer to that," Schiano said.
Things didn't get much better in the second half. UConn, leading 24-10 at intermission, received the second-half kickoff. The Huskies scored 84 seconds later, after a 54-yard kickoff return by Nick Williams and a 36-yard run by McCombs.
Rutgers elected to punt on its next possession on 4th-and-inches, the 40-yard punt was returned 30 yards by Williams, and four plays later McCummings stuck it in the end zone again. The extra point was blocked, but the score was 37-10, and the game was all but over with 10 minutes, 13 seconds left in the third quarter.
"I don't have an explanation for what happened," said a moist-eyed Khaseem Greene, who led Rutgers with 13 tackles.
"I don't think it was lack of focus, or lack of energy, or lack of being revved up for the game," said defensive tackle Scott Vallone.
Their coach was equally mystified. "I think they did a great job in their preparation," Schiano said of his team. "I thought the guys were ready to play."
But the evidence was to the contrary. Besides the Scarlet Knights' six turnovers, there were plenty of other mistakes. A roughing the passer call on Justin Francis turned a fourth down into a first down and eventually a touchdown for the Huskies. A running into the kicker call on Wayne Warren turned a punt into a first down and a subsequent UConn field goal.
The only reason the score looked reasonable is that backup quarterback Gary Nova threw for 298 yards and two touchdowns in fourth-quarter mop-up duty.
"Part of it is coaching, obviously," said Schiano. "They outcoached us, they outplayed us. We just need to go back to the drawing board."
On the bright side, Rutgers finished the regular season 8-4, 4-3 in the Big East, after being picked to finish last in the conference's preseason poll. And the Scarlet Knights will go to a bowl game, after missing out a year ago.
But it's hard to look at the bright side after a loss as dark as this one. The Scarlet Knights' three previous defeats this season were all close calls -- 24-22 at North Carolina, 16-14 at Louisville and 41-31 versus West Virginia.
This one was far different.
Schiano was asked after the game if, considering the preseason expectations, he would have signed up for an 8-4 record.
"I personally would not have," Schiano said. "This year, I don't know what we are. I don't know if we are an 8-4 team -- our record says we are, so that's what we are. But we're a work in progress."
And the work toward winning that first Big East championship will continue for yet another year.