University sports year in review
This year was supposed to be the next step for Rutgers football. The veteran offensive line was returning completely, with legit NFL stud prospect Anthony Davis as the anchor. They had a senior quarterback returning — albeit without any career starts — but at least he could provide some leadership. The two-headed running back monster of Joe Martinek and Jourdan Brooks returned, as was Kordell Young. The defense had all its key cogs returning, aside from Pete Tverdov and Courtney Greene. In the words of Eric Foster, it was supposed to be "R Year." This season's freshmen class was regarded as the best in school history, anchored by linebacker Antwan Lowery, running back DeAntwan Williams and quarterback Tom Savage. It was all looking up. This was supposed to be even better than 2006. The Scarlet Knights were the favorites in the watered-down Big East, even picked by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett and Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel. Then Cincinnati came to town.
Just as the revamped stadium opened, RU's window to win the Big East closed — or more accurately — slammed shut. Dom Natale put on a show, at least to Cincinnati fans, in the first half with three interceptions and the defense couldn't figure out how to stop Cincy's dreaded five-yard curl route that it seemed to run every single play. It was just embarrassing looking back. Some of my friends and I painted our chests for this game, spelling "Go Rutgers," and by the third quarter, we were down to an "R" and a "G." The rest had left or put their shirts back on. They didn't want to risk getting put on ESPN when the school was being embarrassed on national television.
To be honest, Rutgers never really recovered from that game. Sure, for the next month, the Knights got to beat up on patsies from the Football Championship Subdivision and other fairly awful football teams. Even while beating Maryland by double digits, RU still just did not look very strong; it seemed to be struggling against teams a casual fan would assume it would win by 40 points. Even the game against Florida International, a team most famous for getting into a brawl with Miami a couple years ago, came down to an onside kick at the end. The team barely looked better than Louisville and Syracuse.
The team needed a miracle to get by Connecticut on Halloween following a heartbreaking loss against the Fighting Wannstaches and a win in a game that never should have been that close against Army.
But then, out of nowhere, they waxed South Florida by 31 points. Savage seemed to be arriving and ready to take on Southern California's Matt Barkley as the best true freshman quarterback in the country. The defense was unstoppable, and the team just looked flat-out dominant.
Then our triumphant team went to Syracuse's Carrier Dome. It got obliterated. Destroyed. Taken down. Overpowered. Outcoached. Out-hustled. Take your pick. My favorite is: embarrassed. A team with no talent, without its best receiver, with a basketball player at quarterback for much of the game took down the overconfident team that had just shutout South Florida. Rutgers wasn't prepared while this was the Super Bowl to Syracuse. This pretty much ruined any chance of going to the Gator Bowl as the committee would only take RU over West Virginia if the Knights were clearly the more deserving team. Well, that wasn't going to happen now.
Rutgers easily rolled over Louisville the next week — like it should have done to Syracuse — with the Mohamed Sanu wildcat finally proving he had some worth. At least Sanu's 148 yards was better than the previous owner of the Rutgers wildcat offense ever had.
Then against West Virginia, the Knights at least had a chance to go to the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and the defense did its part as Rutgers tormenter Jarrett Brown was held in check as was the most electrifying player in the Big East, Noel Devine. But unfortunately, Savage did his best Jamarcus Russell impression out there: completing only 9-of-27 passes for one touchdown and two interceptions. Watching the game from the student section, I wondered whether we even broke double digits in first downs. Somehow we ended up with 11, but the number seemed closer to half of that. The offense would just run Martinek up the middle for one or two yards on first down, run Sanu for anywhere from negative to positive three yards on second down, and most likely, leave Savage to throw an incompletion on third and long. The offense was doing things not seen outside of the Oakland Raiders. Everyone took a beating, from the mediocre receivers to the freshman quarterback, to the overrated offensive line.
For next year, hopefully the offensive training wheels come off. Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca did mentor a big-time offense at Delaware that featured current NFL starter Joe Flacco, so at least there's potential for a high-octane offense that most Rutgers fans have been waiting for. The defense loses two of its best players in Ryan D'Imperio and Devin McCourty, but young players like David Rowe and Steve Beauharnis will have matured and will hopefully be able to take their place. As long as Savage continues to mature and doesn't regress like Barkley at USC, the team should progress but please Greg Schiano — somehow, someway — don't let them get off to their third horrendous start in a row.