- Kieran Darcy, ESPNNewYork.com
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PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Rutgers football fans will have even more reason than usual to celebrate homecoming on Saturday.
Nearly a year after the darkest day in coach Greg Schiano's tenure, the sun appears to be rising on the program once more.
The Scarlet Knights (4-1, 2-0), picked to finish last in the Big East in the conference's preseason media poll, instead stand all alone at the top of the eight-team league. And they are coming off a 34-10 walloping of Pittsburgh last weekend.
"That was an old-fashioned Rutgers win," Schiano said following the victory.
Wins were hard to come by for Rutgers in 2010. After a 4-2 start, the Scarlet Knights lost their final six games of the season, missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
But the team's most devastating loss came on Oct. 16, 2010, when junior defensive tackle Eric LeGrand injured his spinal cord covering a kickoff in a game against Army. LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down, and the rest of the team never recovered from the emotional blow.
But 364 days later, LeGrand -- who has defied doctors' predictions by regaining sensation throughout his body, and is now standing for as long as 40 minutes in therapy -- will be in the press box for Rutgers' homecoming game against Navy, continuing in his new role with the team, as a radio and television analyst.
And he will have plenty of positive things to talk about, with the 2011 Scarlet Knights also defying predictions and aiming for their fourth straight win. In particular, Rutgers has impressed on the defensive side of the ball. It leads the nation with 22 takeaways, and is second in the country with four sacks per game.
The Scarlet Knights have racked up wins over North Carolina Central (48-0), Ohio (38-26) and Syracuse (19-16 in 2 OTs), in addition to the manhandling of Pittsburgh. The only blemish on their résumé? A 24-22 loss at North Carolina on Sept. 10.
After practice on Tuesday, the players who spoke to ESPNNewYork.com all maintained that getting pegged to finish last in the Big East did not affect them.
"That didn't motivate us," said senior linebacker Khaseem Greene, who leads the Big East with nine tackles per game. "Coach told us, and we pretty much had in our head, everybody has a starting point -- whether you start last or start first, that doesn't have a control on how you're going to play. At the end of the day, you gotta go out and make plays, and win games."
"We didn't really pay attention much to that, because we knew what we had and we knew what we could do," said junior wide receiver Mohamed Sanu, who is seventh in the country with nine receptions per game. "We just knew if we were able to play the way we're capable of playing, we would have the year that we want."
Sanu has benefited, perhaps more than any other player, from the changes Schiano made to his coaching staff in the offseason. Frank Cignetti, the former offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, was brought in to install a pro-style offense. Last season, Rutgers utilized the spread, and increasingly relied on a Wildcat package that grew more and more ineffective as the season wore on.
Free from his Wildcat duties, Sanu has been featured exclusively at wide receiver. And the junior has blossomed, with 45 catches for 455 yards and five touchdowns in five games.
"It helped me tremendously," Sanu said of being able to focus on playing wideout. "I'm seeing the benefits of all the offseason workouts, and just working on that one position over and over."
Sanu had shown flashes of stardom before, particularly in his freshman year. But there have been some real surprises on offense -- especially at quarterback, where true freshman Gary Nova has taken over as the starter. Sophomore Chas Dodd struggled early in the season, prompting Schiano to turn to Nova midway through the third quarter of the game against Syracuse on Oct. 1. Nova piloted the Scarlet Knights to a win at the Carrier Dome, and received the first start of his college career last Saturday against Pitt.
Thus far, Nova has completed 32 of 68 passes for 412 yards, with four touchdowns and, more importantly, zero interceptions. He will get the start again on Saturday against Navy.
Senior fullback Joe Martinek, when asked what impresses him about Nova, said, "I think his poise -- coming into the Carrier Dome is not an easy thing to do, and leading us against a very good Pitt defense ... he's been doing a very good job."
In terms of the running game, many Rutgers fans expected five-star freshman recruit Savon Huggins to be getting the bulk of the carries by now. But instead, it's been redshirt freshman Jawan Jamison who is leading the team in carries (91) and rushing yards (247) -- although Huggins does lead the team in rushing touchdowns (4).
But, as you can gather by Jamison's numbers -- which equate to a paltry 2.7 yards per carry -- the Scarlet Knights have not been very effective on the ground. In fact, their average rushing yards per game (79.8) places them 115th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Schiano remains optimistic about his offense. "I have felt the last couple weeks that we were gonna really pop," Schiano said.
Rutgers faces a daunting task on Saturday. Navy (2-3) does come in on a three-game losing streak, after a 63-35 defeat versus Southern Miss last week. But before that came close losses to South Carolina and Air Force.
The Midshipmen always present a challenge because of their triple-option offense, and they come in ranked No. 1 in the country in rushing, racking up an astounding 366 yards per game on the ground.
"It's a huge challenge because it's a unique offense and one we don't see very much," said Schiano. "They're as productive as anybody in the country right now at moving the football."
While not a league game, a win over Navy would give Rutgers tremendous momentum heading into its next Big East contest, a prime-time clash with Louisville next Friday night on ESPN2.
The only other time Rutgers has started a season 2-0 in the conference was in 2006, when the Scarlet Knights stunned No. 3 Louisville on a Thursday night, en route to finishing the season 11-2 with a ranking of No. 12 in the country.
It's way too early to put that kind of expectation on this Rutgers team -- but hope is definitely in the air in Piscataway.
"We knew we had something special from the day that we started our workouts in the summertime -- in the springtime actually," Greene said. "We knew that we just had to go out and show everybody else what we had."
"There is something about the DNA of this team -- the toughness, smart kids and smart coaches that stick together and are unselfish," Schiano said. "These kids are a special group of kids and the way they are growing together is fun to be a part of every day."
Nearly a year after Greg Schiano's darkest day, Rutgers is rising once more.