Rutgers seizes first-ever Big Ten win as fans rush the field at High Point Solutions Stadium
Fireworks and cannons smoked through the crisp Piscataway air on numerous occasions Saturday night, but it wasn't until High Point Solutions Stadium's student section emptied and fans rushed onto the field that it all meant something special.
A 26-24 victory against college football's most storied program signaled not only the Rutgers football team's first-ever Big Ten win, but perhaps the biggest moment in Scarlet Knights history.
Gone are the demons that lingered from a crushing loss to Penn State only three weeks prior. Answered are the trials and tribulations that came with a painful defeat to Louisville in 2012 as a BCS bowl berth slipped away.
And silenced, at least for the time being, are the critics who prematurely ruled out the Knights' chances of competing in one of the nation's most prestigious conferences before the season started.
"This is one of the reasons why I wanted to stay home — for big opportunities like this, for big games like this and moments like this," said junior wide receiver Leonte Carroo, an Edison native. "That feeling with the whole entire fan corps storming the field like that, you can't feel that anywhere else. It wouldn't feel the same for a kid who left and went to another school. ... For me to stay home and win a game like that, and all the fans and everyone loving me is just great."
Once the students stormed the field in a frenzy shortly after the game clock expired against Michigan (2-4, 0-2), Rutgers (5-1, 1-1) had no choice but to soak it all in.
Fans chanted Carroo's name as the junior estimated he took "a million selfies" before finding and hugging his father and brother. "Feels Like the First Time" blasted over the loudspeakers as other Knights energized themselves with the crowd.
Senior quarterback Gary Nova, who has been through countless highs and lows in his college career, embraced his parents in an emotional moment.
"It’s something you remember forever," Nova said. "It's the reason why you play college football — for moments like that."
Few will sleep more soundly than Nova after this one.
In front of 53,327 fans, the third-largest crowd in stadium history, Rutgers' much-maligned quarterback finally came through on a big stage, even when little materialized around him.
Sophomores Desmon Peoples and Justin Goodwin rushed for a combined one yard in the first half as the Wolverines' stingy defensive front clogged the interior. Rutgers' running backs finished with only 49 yards on the ground as the team generated 74 total — by far its lowest output of the season.
Nova even briefly lost Carroo, arguably Rutgers' best player, during a first-quarter drive in which the receiver took a hard hit from Michigan safety Jarrod Wilson after making a third-down catch.
But the quarterback responded with one of his finest nights in Piscataway, completing 22-of-39 passes for three touchdowns, no interceptions and a career-high 404 yards.
Three weeks after five interceptions doomed Rutgers in its 13-10 loss to Penn State, Nova stayed poised.
"I feel like he had something to prove," Carroo said of his long-time teammate since high school. "He came up short in the Penn State game, but this game you saw a different Gary. You saw him more confident ... and I knew he was going to have a great game from the moment we got off the bus. He knew he wasn't going to go out like he did versus Penn State. He was going to come out here and he was going to execute, and I'm extremely proud of him."
But when the game was ultimately on the line, the ball was out of Nova's hands.
Starting from their own 14-yard line down by two points, quarterback Devin Gardner drove the Wolverines 48 yards down to Rutgers' 38-yard line. Less than four minutes remained.
Gardner appeared to find wide receiver Amara Darboh along the sideline for a first down, but the pass was ruled incomplete once the ball came loose as Darboh fell to the ground.
After a failed challenge to reverse the call, Michigan head coach Brady Hoke sent out kicker Matt Wile for a career-long 56-yard field goal attempt to potentially win the game.
The rest was history, as redshirt freshman defensive end Kemoko Turay leaped into the air and extended all of his 6-foot-6 frame to record his third blocked kick of the season.
"It was almost surreal at that point, because you hear the thud, thud and you think, 'Wow, we are going to seal this thing away right now,'" said senior linebacker Kevin Snyder. "It was amazing."
After one first down on a 3-yard rush from Peoples, Rutgers ran out the rest of the clock.
The celebrations ensued, and there was nothing to take away from the Knights on this night.
"They got a chance tonight to be a part of something that no other football team will ever get a chance to be a part of because this was the first [Big Ten win]," said head coach Kyle Flood. "And when it happens for the first time, it's special, and I think it's something that the University will remember, the state will remember, but this team got a chance to actually be a part of it and do it. And it's a great memory that they should take with them the rest of their lives."
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @gregp_j and @TargumSports on Twitter.