Rutgers pulls off program's biggest comeback to secure winning season in first Big Ten campaign
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The Rutgers football team had been in this agonizing position so many times before, and for that reason alone, junior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton wasn't sure if he fully believed Jim Panagos.
The fired up defensive line coach told the Scarlet Knights at halftime as they were down 18 points that they were going to score only a few plays after the second-half kickoff. He insisted they would then respond with shutdown defense, which was inconceivable given the Knights had just surrendered 35 first-half points to the nation's 111th ranked total offense.
But by the end of Saturday night, this was going to be the day Rutgers righted the wrongs of its troubled past in Big Ten road games, Panagos prophesized.
"When people say it, you're just kind of like, 'Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure,'" Hamilton said. "But when it really happens, guys are like, 'Oh, this is crazy.'"
Crazy is one of few words that do justice to what transpired at Byrd Stadium, where Rutgers ended its regular season with a stunning 25-point comeback — the largest in school history — to upset fellow conference newcomer Maryland, 41-38.
But the Knights (7-5, 3-5) first had to stay strong in the wake of a 35-10 deficit just before the half.
"I'm pretty sure a couple kids on the team think, 'Hey, this could possibly be over,' especially [because] we've been down like that before," Carroo said. "But leaders on the team, you've just got to tell them, 'Hey, it's not over — just got to keep fighting."
That was exactly what the Knights did, even when history told outside observers that it wasn't supposed to go this way.
Rutgers had been down the path of falling behind five touchdowns before the half on the road before. At Ohio State, that scenario spiraled into a 39-point drubbing. At Michigan State, the Knights had little to hang their hats on save for their second-half effort level.
And at Maryland (7-5, 4-4), another precarious scene quickly escalated.
Led by dual threat quarterback C.J. Brown, the Terrapins' zone-read offense methodically marched down the field for a touchdown in 11 plays on the game's opening drive.
Rutgers mustered 10 points to hang around early in the second quarter, but after senior quarterback Gary Nova fumbled midway through the period, another road blowout appeared a formality.
Running back Brandon Ross rushed for a 40-yard touchdown on the next play from scrimmage, and not long after everyone blinked, Maryland was up five touchdowns.
"We missed on some opportunities, and we knew it was more us," Nova said. "They did a good job, but we knew that if we hit some of those plays, we had some opportunities to score some points. And if we got those opportunities in the second half, we could be right back in the game."
With two minutes left in the half, this was Rutgers' fate: fourth-and-18 from its own 28-yard line with another punt upcoming, still down by five touchdowns.
But Maryland roughed junior punter Joey Roth on the ensuing play, giving the Knights life as they proceeded to storm 56 yards in six plays. And after Maryland intercepted Nova's pass on second-and-goal into the end zone, another prayer was answered.
"We get the offsides call, which was a blessing," Nova said.
He took advantage, rolling to his left and finding sophomore wideout Andre Patton for a touchdown in the back of the end zone two plays later to cut the lead to 35-17.
Rutgers went on to score touchdowns on four straight drives into the second half. The fifth drive resulted in a go-ahead 25-yard field goal from junior kicker Kyle Federico with 6:14 left in the fourth quarter, capping a 31-3 run over the game's final 17 minutes.
It all sprung off two game-changing penalties to grant Rutgers a twist of fate.
"That's a 14-point swing that kind of gets the ball rolling," said head coach Kyle Flood. "Without that, I don't know if we would've had enough time to come back. But that's the probably the turning point in the game for us was those two things. ... That created some momentum for us within the game."
From there, Nova took over.
Playing in his final collegiate regular season game, the senior put together a brilliant second-half performance, dissecting the middle of the field by passing 14-for-16 for 196 yards and two touchdowns.
That gave him a career-high 28 completions for 347 yards and four scores on the night, with three different receivers — Carroo, Patton and sophomore Janarion Grant — tallying over 100 yards each for the first time in school history.
Nova almost assuredly has one more game to play when bowl selections are announced next Sunday, but perseverance through adversity is likely to define his legacy's final chapter.
"It just goes to show his character," Carroo said. "He's going to keep fighting until his very last game, and I couldn't be more proud of him."
Before the clock hit all zeroes, everything in Rutgers' season circle came full circle.
A critical fourth-down defensive stand helped preserved a 41-38 advantage, just like in Rutgers' season opener at Washington State. And just like Aug. 28, Rutgers fought through several in-game momentum shifts that serve as a microcosm for the season.
But even more than ultimately winning seven games in their inaugural Big Ten campaign, the Knights will always marvel at pulling off the largest comeback in program history.
"When we came off the field, that was said. I'm like, 'You know, it's really cool to be a part of a team that makes the history books,'" said senior defensive end David Milewski. "Rutgers has been playing football for a long time."
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @gregp_j and @TargumSports on Twitter.