Commentary

Rutgers ready for backyard bowl game

Knights return to Yankee Stadium, this time for Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State

Updated: December 30, 2011, 9:43 AM ET
By Kieran Darcy | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Yankee Stadium is all dressed up and ready for one more big game in 2011.

Rutgers (8-4, 4-3 Big East) and Iowa State (6-6, 3-6 Big 12) will clash for the first time, in the second annual New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Friday (3:20 p.m. ET on ESPN). And the Scarlet Knights are hoping to have a significant home-field advantage after selling out their official allotment of more than 13,000 tickets. Plus, Rutgers already played a game at Yankee Stadium this year, beating Army 27-12 on Nov. 12.

"Certainly looking forward to having a lot of Rutgers faithful in the stands," coach Greg Schiano said Thursday afternoon at the final pregame news conference at Yankee Stadium. "You know how that can become a big advantage in a football game."

[+] EnlargePaul Rhoads, Greg Schiano and Pinstripe Bowl trophy
AP Photo/Richard DrewPaul Rhoads and Greg Schiano will vie for the Pinstripe Bowl trophy Friday.

Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads admitted his team has prepared as if this is a true road game. But the Cyclones are excited about the location nonetheless. "It's one of the greatest sports venues that there is," Rhoads said, "and to get a chance to play a football game in it will be a lifetime's worth of memories for our football team."

Last we saw Rutgers, it was playing for a share of its first Big East title, at UConn on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. But the Scarlet Knights were throttled by the 4-6 Huskies, losing 40-22 in a game that wasn't even that close.

Freshman quarterback Gary Nova, who relieved sophomore Chas Dodd in the fourth quarter and played well in mop-up duty, might have reclaimed the starting job. Dodd started Rutgers' first four games of the season, gave way to Nova the next five and then regained the starting position for the final three games in November.

Schiano would not commit to a starting quarterback Thursday. "We have some ideas. Right now we're kinda talking it all through," Schiano said. "I think you can expect to see 'em both play. Who starts? I'm not sure yet."

Iowa State finished in eighth place in the Big 12, but don't be fooled. Five of its six losses came against ranked opponents. The Cyclones also walloped No. 20 Texas Tech on the road, 41-7 on Oct. 29. And most impressive of all, they defeated No. 2 Oklahoma State 37-31 in two overtimes on Nov. 18, which ultimately denied the Cowboys a spot in the national championship game.

Rutgers, on the other hand, played only one ranked opponent all season, losing 41-31 at home to No. 25 West Virginia in late October.

Rhoads, finishing his third year at Iowa State, has reinvigorated the school's football program -- so much so that he was given a 10-year, $20 million contract extension Dec. 16, with other schools in hot pursuit.

"We think right now the energy around our football program is at an all-time high," Rhoads said. "We've set single-season attendance records, all six [home] crowds over 50,000, season-ticket sales were at an all-time high, and we've done that in three short years. So we know we're moving in the right direction."

Statistically, Rutgers has one of the weakest offenses in the country -- ranked No. 115 out of 120 Division I teams in rushing and No. 100 in total offense. But the Scarlet Knights do have junior wideout Mohamed Sanu, who shattered the Big East record for most receptions in a season with 109. Sanu finished the regular season with 1,144 receiving yards and seven TD catches, second in the conference in both categories.

"He's a great football player -- as productive as any receiver in college football," Rhoads said. "The way they move him around and line him up in different locations, you can't zero in on that. So it's gonna take a complete team defensive effort to try to control him. You're not gonna stop him; you're not gonna shut him down. We just will work very hard to try to control him the best we can."

On the other side of the ball, Iowa State was ranked No. 36 in the country in rushing, averaging 181.2 yards per game on the ground. But Rutgers' defense has allowed only 18.8 points per game, 12th-best in Division I.

Keep an eye on Iowa State quarterback Jared Barnett, a freshman who took over as the starter in late October. Barnett threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Oklahoma State, and was second on the team in rushing with 99 carries for 435 yards.

Rutgers' defense is led by linebacker Khaseem Greene, named the co-Big East defensive player of the year after leading the conference in tackles with 127. Schiano received good news earlier this week when Greene announced he would be returning to Piscataway for his senior season, instead of heading straight to the NFL.

Rutgers will be playing in its sixth bowl game in seven seasons, after missing out last year with a 4-8 record. Iowa State also missed out last season, after beating Minnesota in the Insight Bowl in 2009.

The Scarlet Knights have won their previous four bowl games. On Thursday, Schiano was asked about the significance of picking up another bowl win, this time at Yankee Stadium.

"I think it's always important to win your last football game. It gives your offseason a great feel," Schiano said. "But I think our program is beyond one game defining our program.

"Consistency is the key. We've been to bowl games in six of the last seven years, and we realize that that's the minimum standard at Rutgers -- you need to go to bowl games. And then you need to win bowl games next, and [then] win championships. So I think that's our mission, that's where we aim every year."

The conference championship eluded the Scarlet Knights in November. But another bowl win is there for the taking Friday afternoon in the Bronx.

Kieran Darcy is an ESPNNewYork.com staff writer. He joined ESPN in August 2000 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, where he played four years of JV basketball.
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