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Rutgers on track for historic season
In the north end zone at High Point Solutions Stadium, a hulking pile of concrete, metal and red paint on the campus of Rutgers University, there’s a wall that boldly declares the State University of New Jersey to be “The Birthplace of College Football.”
Most outside of Piscataway wouldn’t know it, but it was here — well, not here, exactly, but up the road, where the old College Avenue Gymnasium now stands — that Rutgers, known as the Queensmen before they became the Scarlet Knights, played the first documented college football game, a 6-4 win over Princeton in 1869.
Given Rutgers’ ties to that premiere contest, it certainly could stand to reason that college football might not be what it is without them — an odd claim to fame, to be sure, for a school that’s not necessarily known for its athletic prowess — but as grounded as they are in football’s roots, the Scarlet Knights have made little substantive history of their own over the last 143 years.
Until now, anyway.
After a 23-15 home victory over Syracuse on Saturday, Rutgers is off to a 6-0 start, its best in six years, and is currently the highest-ranked Big East team in the BCS standings, at No. 15. By all accounts, the Scarlet Knights, who have already beaten Arkansas, South Florida and Connecticut this year, should be 9-0 heading into a Nov. 17 meeting with fellow unbeaten Cincinnati, and could have the best shot they’ve ever had at reaching the school’s first BCS bowl this January.
None of this would be altogether shocking for most teams that had won at least eight games in five of the last six years — including five bowl games — but it comes as something of a surprise because Rutgers is doing what it’s doing without Greg Schiano, the coach who put the program on the map.
Instead, the latest rebirth of Rutgers football is coming under the direction of Kyle Flood, a one-time high school math teacher and longtime Scarlet Knights offensive line coach who was named interim head coach when Schiano left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January. Rutgers removed that tag on Jan. 31, the eve of national signing day.
It’s ordinary to expect an adjustment period when a new leader takes the reins on a program, and this is particularly the case when the new coach is so green to the position, as Flood is. The last time Rutgers hired a first-time head coach, it was Schiano, who went 3-20 in his first two seasons.
So what’s made this particular transition so fluid? History could have a little bit to do with it.
"We’ve got very talented players and they’re really good people and they work very hard, and I think we’ve got a staff of talented coaches that work very hard," Flood said. "Are we unique in that aspect? I don’t think so … but this team — maybe because of some of the things that have happened in the past, some of the times that we’ve been close to what we’ve wanted and ultimately it’s gotten away from us — is maybe just a little bit more focused than we have been."
In 2006, Rutgers started the season 9-0 and climbed up to No. 7 in the AP Top 25, but a stunning loss at Cincinnati ended the Scarlet Knights’ hopes for a shot at the BCS Championship Game. Then two weeks later, an overtime loss against West Virginia squashed Rutgers’ chance at its first conference title. At 10-2, Rutgers would have to settle for the Texas Bowl, while 11-1 Louisville, whom Rutgers had beaten, went to the Orange Bowl.
Tempered success continued to define Rutgers in subsequent seasons, but much like the 2006 campaign, seemingly every year ended in contemplation over could have been.
In 2008, the Scarlet Knights overcame a 1-5 start to reach the PapaJohns.com Bowl, but a 13-10 loss to Cincinnati kept them out of the BCS. In 2009, Rutgers won its fourth consecutive bowl game — a noteworthy accomplishment for a team that had played in one bowl game, total, before 2005 — but a 3-4 conference record put a damper on the celebration.
A 4-8 campaign in 2010 was marred by a chilling on-field spinal cord injury to defensive lineman Eric LeGrand. Understandably shaken by the dire situation of a teammate and brother, Rutgers didn’t win another game after LeGrand’s injury. Last season’s 9-4 finish made for a welcome bounce-back, but Schiano’s abrupt exit left the program shocked and somber, and for a time, hope seemed to have gone with the old coach to Tampa Bay.
But because Flood, like much of his roster, was here to experience the disappointment of the last few years, he has found he can use that pain as motivation for his team. That’s part of what has helped him connect so easily with his players over the last eight months.
“Our core values and the foundation that Coach Schiano built, and our success turning this program around — Coach Flood was here and was able to witness that,” senior linebacker Khaseem Greene said. “Now he’s here to take us to the next level. … He doesn’t approach it like he’s a first-year coach. We really feel like he has been a head coach before, and there’s just something special about him.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Flood is, in some ways, the anti-Schiano in his approach to coaching.
Flood’s more relaxed disposition seems to be a welcome departure from the aggressive and overly demanding style practiced by Schiano, who has already miffed some of his NFL contemporaries by having his defensive line bull-rush victory formations under the guise of “playing until the final whistle.”
That’s not to say that Flood has made a circus of the program or come to expect less effort of his players than his predecessor. One couldn’t possibly succeed in this business without being at least something of a taskmaster. But Flood’s ability to just let go, let his senior leaders lead and let his words marinate is rubbing off on his players.
“I loved him as soon as I got here, and I love him even more now that he’s the head coach,” sophomore quarterback Gary Nova said. “He’s really a player’s coach and he lets us be loose — but not to the point where it’s silliness. That gives everybody confidence.”
Said senior linebacker Jamal Merrell: “(Flood) knows everybody has a job. He stays on top of everybody in the right way, the positive way, to do that job, and everybody’s just feeding off that energy. … His message is to just stay humble and keep doing what we’re doing.”
The last six weeks considered, it seems preposterous that Flood wasn’t the Rutgers’ first choice to fill Schiano’s headset — the school was reportedly turned down by Florida International head man Mario Cristobal before settling on Flood — but it’s become clear that he was the right one, and Rutgers is lucky, in retrospect, to have missed out on their No. 1 target.
Flood and his unbeaten squad will visit Temple this weekend looking to move to 7-0, and as the Scarlet Knights hurtle toward what will hopefully be a first BCS bowl. The thought of rewriting the school’s football history is the only motivation they need.
“We don’t need the rowdy pep talks to get us going,” Greene said. “He tells us exactly what he wants us to do, and we go out and do it. He tells us the visions that he sees for us before the game, and we go out and do it.”
Said Flood: “There’s no magic wand. This team works very hard; the coaches prepare very hard. They work diligently to learn the game plan, and I couldn’t be more excited to see them have the success on the field, because it only serves to tell them that what they’re doing is the right thing to do.”
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