Chances are if you ask any Rutgers fan what is the most important or memorable game in the school’s football history the answer will be the same. Pandemonium in Piscataway.
On a Thursday night in early November 2006 Rutgers battled back for a wild victory over No. 3 Louisville that has since been largely credited for bringing Rutgers football back from the dead, officially. Kicker Jeremy Ito was given a second chance at a game-winning field goal after a Louisville penalty nullified a missed field goal try late in the game. The 28-yard field capped a strong second-half rally as Rutgers dug out of a 25-14 halftime deficit by shutting out the Cardinals 14-0 in the second half.
“This is the way college football is supposed to be,” former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano said after the dramatic victory. “The New York/New Jersey metropolitan area hasn’t had this. But I’ve got a feeling they’re really going to take to it.”
“I remember it being a very close game with a lot of talented football players on the field,” Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood said this week. In 2006 Flood was an offensive line coach under former Schiano. “I think if you went back and you looked at both teams and projected those guys into their professional careers, you’d see quite a few of them made an impact even in the NFL. So it was certainly a great night for college football in general, and we were excited to come out on top of it.”
Rutgers running back Ray Rice scored a touchdown in the third quarter. Kenny Britt had two catches for 82 yards for Rutgers. Tiquan Underwood added a couple of catches for 36 yards and a touchdown for Rutgers.
Thursday night the stakes may not have national title implications as they did six years ago, but there will be plenty at stake for the two schools heading in opposite directions in the next couple of years. Tied for the lead in the Big East, the winner of the Thursday night match-up between Rutgers and Louisville will more than likely receive the Big East’s automatic BCS bowl berth. A Rutgers win would clinch the BCS spot instantly with just one loss in Big East play. Louisville needs to win and to finish higher than Cincinnati and Syracuse in the BCS standings. Louisville defeated Cincinnati but lost to Syracuse this season, but the Cardinals still rank higher in the extended BCS standings than the Orange.
Louisville and Rutgers both lost last week, dropping each from the top 25 rankings and taking away some of the intrigue in the game as a result. The game may also be driven by realignment storylines. Yesterday it was announced Louisville will be joining the ACC in 2014, replacing Big Ten-bound Maryland. Rutgers will be joining Maryland in the Big Ten as well.
Realignment always has a way of distracting from the game itself, which is a shame because this particular game should be the game of the year in the Big East. Louisville takes the Big East’s top scoring offense on the road to battle the conference’s top scoring defense. Rutgers has allowed 13.7 points per game this season and Louisville is averaging 32.0 points per game.
The Cardinals are led on offense by sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the Big East’s most accurate passer with a 68.8 completion percentage, 23 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Bridgewater has been the focal point behind Louisville’s success this season and last, and he continues to develop in to one of the top offensive players in the country. After getting banged up in a loss to Connecticut last week though, Bridgewater will have to take more snaps out of the shotgun formation against Rutgers.
“He cannot go underneath center and take a snap,” Louisville head coach Charlie Strong said this week. Bridgewater injured his leg against UConn. “He came back with the left leg injury and he was able to bounce back and play. It was more of an ankle injury, but he is going to be OK.”
Louisville has dropped two games in a row, but Bridgewater does not appear to have been the biggest cause for alarm, injury aside. In the last two games Bridgewater has thrown for 755 yards and five touchdowns, with a pair of interceptions. It was Louisville’s defense that was exposed against Syracuse two games ago in a 45-26 drubbing on the road.
Rutgers has their own sophomore quarterback in Gary Nova, who will play a key role Thursday night as well. Nova started the season very well with 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions in the first half of the year, but the second half of the season has seen a different story. Nova has been picked off 11 times since October 20 including six interceptions at home against Kent State, a team that could be on the verge of a surprising BCS berth themselves Friday night. Last week at Pittsburgh Nova completed less than half of his pass attempts.
Nova’s job will be to manage the offense more efficiently Thursday night and let the ground game try to set the tone. This could be easier said than done of course. Rutgers is ranked next to last in the Big East running the football for an average of 132.45 yards per game, but Louisville’s defense is next to last in the Big East in rushing defense. Something has to give, right?
Rutgers does have the conference’s third leading rusher in the dynamic sophomore Jawan Jamison, capable of breaking a big highlight play in the blink of an eye. Jamison enters the final game of the regular season with 1,004 yards but just four touchdowns. Rutgers has entered the red zone 31 times, tied for fewest in the Big East, and they have come away with a score just 22 times, by far the lowest red zone success rate in the Big East (70.97 percent) with 16 red zone touchdowns. Louisville leads the Big East in red zone success, scoring 95.65 percent of the time they get inside the 20-yard line. Louisville has 32 red-zone touchdowns, second only to Syracuse.
“They do a great job in running the football,” Strong said of Rutgers. “They have two really talented running backs…If you look at it, they are a team that is going to run the ball and rely on their defense to apply pressure to win the game. They are not going to lose it on offense. They want their defense to take the field and go win it for them.”
The game of the year in the Big East may not have the ramifications it did in 2006, but Louisville and Rutgers will stop at no cost to get the Big East’s BCS bowl spot. The stakes riding on the game, for two programs that will soon abandon the Big East in search of a greener future, could just lead to a new level of pandemonium after all.
Kevin is a national college football writer for rootshed.com and the host of the No 2-Minute Warning podcast. Follow him on Twitter. Email Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.