Against all odds, Rutgers pushes for bowl game needing 2 wins in 2 games
Knights eye wins against Indiana, No. 17 Michigan State to boost them into 1st bowl game since 2014
In sports, a lot of people would say it is worse to lose a close game, than it is to suffer a blowout.
Zoom out, and the image is the same — it may be even worse to miss a bowl game by inches than to be miles away from one.
Last year finishing at 2-10, the Rutgers football team were clearly the latter, but this year, the Scarlet Knights, sitting at 4-6 with two games to go, are in danger of just missing a bowl game. That is, if they don't win out.
Not many on the team really want to talk about it — especially head coach Chris Ash, who maintains he is "worried about Indiana" — but bowl eligibility hangs in the balance with the final two weeks of the season coming around.
Still, some hold that a bowl game has always been in sight for Rutgers, even after last year's disappointing showing. With Ash settling in for his second year, the coaching staff adjusting to the players and vice versa, the Knights are just about where they expected themselves to be, give or take a win or two.
"It's definitely a goal that was set out in the beginning of the season," said junior tight end Jerome Washington. "But the way that Iowa did it is just take each game, one game at a time, and then even breaking it down smaller — during the game, take each snap at a time."
Following Iowa's strategy would be a sensible one for Rutgers — the Hawkeyes became the seventh team in the Big Ten to clinch a bowl game with a resounding 55-24 win over then-No. 6 Ohio State.
That game was part of a circular food chain-like effect without a top predator, as no team can reasonably claim it is better than all others. No. 10 Penn State has fallen to both the Buckeyes and Michigan State. The No. 17 Spartans lost to Northwestern and made Ohio State's loss to Iowa look close, going down to the Buckeyes, 48-3. As for undefeated No. 5 Wisconsin, it has yet to play Ohio State, Michigan State or Penn State, and it won't for the rest of the season.
What this means for the Knights is they could very well triumph over a beatable Indiana side before toppling the Spartans in the regular season finale, a feat that looks less and less daunting as the weeks wear on.
It's not the Ohio State blowout that Rutgers fans should draw attention to, it's the loss to Northwestern. The Wildcats are undoubtedly a better team than the Knights, but that doesn't mean the Spartans should not have put them away easily. Optimistically, there are holes on the Michigan State side waiting to be exploited, a necessity if Rutgers wants to have any shot at the postseason.
Of course, Indiana comes first — a team with the same record but in a worse division in the conference. If the Hoosiers are unable to defeat a team that the Knights beat (Maryland), that stands as a major point of confidence for them going into the weekend.
And as Washington alluded to, the prospect of a bowl game has been a strong motivator for this team, its last being in 2014, in which only a handful of current players appeared (Robert Martin, Josh Hicks and Sebastian Joseph).
Very few on this Rutgers roster have played beyond the regular season, and above all else, it remains a part of the college football experience that these players have yet to grasp.
"It would be fun," said junior left tackle Tariq Cole. "I've never been really on a neutral ground ... playing a football game, so I would love (for) the fans to come out and be there, and it would be really fun for the whole time."
That feeling multiplies for the seniors, whose time sporting the block "R" ticks away with only two games remaining on the schedule.
As the team moves forward on its rebuild, there's less question as to whether the underclassmen will lace up for a bowl game in the years to come. For the seniors, the timetable is winding down. For everyone, that very fact is what's pushing this team ahead.
"Having the seniors there for their last ever bowl game in a Rutgers uniform, that's something special," Cole said. "I think they deserve that, and they should have it."
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