Nova, Rutgers cap first Big Ten season with bowl victory in Detroit
DETROIT — Gary Nova tried as hard as he could to hold back his tears.
He tried to block out the inevitability of the situation in the days leading up to this. He tried to avoid getting caught up in the outpouring of love from the Piscataway faithful, the few thousand of which traveled more than 600 miles to chant his name once it all ended.
Most of all, the senior quarterback tried not to cry while addressing his teammates in the visiting team locker room of Ford Field following an emotional 40-21 win against North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl.
But Nova, with his Rutgers football legacy finally complete, couldn't resist breaking down.
"I was trying to hold it back," the co-captain said postgame Friday. "But just seeing all the faces and knowing that that was my last time with the guys in this locker room was pretty tough."
These were the players Nova had spent the last four months living under the Big Ten's microscope with, having to answer to critics at every potential breaking point of the season.
Many had toiled by his side for the better part of four seasons, experiencing all of the highs and lows that fueled Nova's stigma of sporadic play in big games.
In a way, Nova felt responsible for letdowns as the program's central figure these past few years. He knew how easy it could have been for teammates to turn on him.
So as he stood at the center of an NFL locker room in perhaps the defining moment of his career, staring into the eyes of those he couldn't feel more appreciation for, the senior was confused.
"It was just weird. After the game, everybody was thanking me, and I just wanted to let them know, 'Don't thank me. I thank you guys for everything, for just being there for me through the tough times,'" said Nova, who was visibly teary-eyed underneath his camouflage-colored golf cap. "They're the reason why I was able to persevere and push through."
On this night, it encapsulated the fortitude of a trying career.
With 184 passing yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers, Nova helped the Scarlet Knights (8-5, 3-5) thoroughly dissect the Tar Heels for their first bowl win since 2011.
During that span, the Elmwood Park, New Jersey, native stumbled through a disastrous outing in the 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl loss against Virginia Tech. He didn't play a snap in last year's Pinstripe Bowl against Notre Dame after being benched for the season's final three games.
But Nova never folded after the failures and never succumbed to the intense scrutiny, instead coming back stronger and more determined after each setback.
Thanks to it, the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes had a career season and now leaves Piscataway with a bowl victory as a starting quarterback.
"This was really the only thing left out there for him that he hadn't accomplished, and he has — leading this team to a bowl championship," said head coach Kyle Flood. "He's poured so much of his life into this program over the last four years that it'd be hard not to be emotional in a moment like this."
He had plenty of help from some of the program's building blocks.
Freshman running backs Josh Hicks and Robert Martin exploded for a combined 302 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries, becoming the first pair of Knights to each rush for 100 yards since 2006.
The shifty 5-foot-10 Hicks, who led the attack with a game-high 202 yards and 49-yard burst in the fourth quarter, landed the Quick Lane Bowl's MVP award.
North Carolina's porous defense never had an answer for Rutgers' balanced offense, which effortlessly marched into the end zone in five plays on the game's opening drive. The Knights steadily built a 23-0 halftime advantage.
Meanwhile, the Knights' opportunistic defense forced two fumbles and refused to wilt to the Tar Heels' up-tempo offense exclusively operated in shotgun, holding North Carolina to seven points until the game's final 6:45.
An eight-win campaign in the program's first-ever Big Ten campaign doesn't guarantee anything for the future, but Rutgers' third-year head coach is hardly downplaying it.
"Going into next year, you've got to earn everything from scratch all over again. There's no doubt," Flood said. "But I do think, as I've said before, winning helps. Winning helps recruiting, winning helps the feel around the program. Winning makes the alumni feel better, winning makes the boosters feel better."
So, too, will retaining junior wide receiver Leonte Carroo, who announced postgame his intentions to return for his senior season after contemplating declaration for the NFL Draft.
It was partly an emotional decision along with feedback from the NFL Advisory Board suggesting he "stay in school" as a junior unlikely to be drafted in the first two rounds, he said.
"It was a lot of long nights talking to my family and friends and my coaches," said Carroo, who stands one touchdown away from tying Rutgers' all-time record of 20. "It was definitely a group effort to make this decision. Ultimately I made the decision for myself, but I got a lot of support."
Perspective on this night, though, firmly centered on Nova, who along with 18 other seniors, walked off Ford Field as winners.
Nova had a difficult time envisioning that there won't be a next year at Rutgers as he pursues offseason training and a potential shot in the NFL. Still, rather than try to figure out if he left the program better than he found it, Nova is most proud of the bonds he formed.
"I just couldn't imagine doing it with any other guys," he said. "I really built some relationships with guys that I never thought I'd be friends with, and I'm going to be friends with these guys forever."
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