Up in arms
Knights squander early 11-point lead in loss to Louisville, add to history of letdowns on conference’s biggest stage
Confetti floated through the frigid Piscataway air last night at High Point Solutions Stadium. But instead of a post-game celebration, the Rutgers football team found 8:44 remained in the third quarter against Louisville, and its fake field goal touchdown had been called back.
The confetti hung inside the smoke-filled stadium a while longer, but no well wishes followed, no BCS aspirations lingered and the second-largest crowd in school history had emptied.
Instead, a 20-17 loss to the Cardinals served as an eerie reminder of the program’s shortcomings.
“It wasn’t something that snuck up on us,” said senior defensive tackle Scott Vallone. “There comes a point where you want to get there, [and] we have to do it.”
Rutgers (9-3, 5-2) had embraced its offensive philosophy. A week after managing only 207 total yards at Pittsburgh, the Knights entered halftime with 219.
They scrapped run-heavy formations for five-receiver sets. They tweaked a run-first mentality to take shots down the field. And for the first time in the team’s recent memory, they looked comfortable doing so.
That was until it mattered.
“Just keep scoring,” thought sophomore quarterback Gary Nova following a 14-3 second-quarter lead. “I don’t think we got complacent. For whatever reason, we just couldn’t execute.”
A fourth-quarter threaded pass to senior wide receiver Tim Wright fell instead into the hands of Louisville linebacker James Burgess. An earlier downfield heave to Wright bounced out his control and instead dribbled onto the High Point Solutions Stadium turf.
And an interception return to Louisville’s 42-yard line never materialized.
Rutgers’ troubled past in meaningful games had surfaced, and again, it proved insurmountable.
“It’s OK to hurt,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “When you pore as much of your life into it like they do, when you don’t get it, it’s OK to hurt. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s not OK is to stop.”
Following a Monday announcement that Cardinals (10-2, 5-2) quarterback Teddy Bridgewater would play, Flood said he did not plan to prepare for two quarterbacks. He did not need to.
Senior backup Will Stein played, as well, but Bridgewater joins a growing list of names in the last seven seasons Piscataway will not soon forget.
Clearly hobbled by a sprained ankle and fractured left wrist he suffered Saturday, Bridgewater operated almost exclusively out of shotgun. Each of his movements — affected by less than a week of recovery time — appeared forced.
He did not even enter the game until the start of the second quarter.
And yet, following two touchdowns that spanned 16 seconds, Bridgewater had given Louisville its first lead. He did so with ingenuity — a scrambling shovel pass led to a 14-yard touchdown.
And he followed it up with precision, connecting on 71 percent of his passes despite near-constant duress.
“He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country in my opinion,” Vallone said. “Some of the throws he made were unbelievable.”
Rutgers, meanwhile, could do nearly no wrong earlier.
A pair of Louisville missed tackles led to 153 combined yards and two first-half touchdowns. Nova’s 186 yards through 30 minutes equaled or surpassed his totals from the last three games. And the availability of sophomore Jawan Jamison, the team’s leading rusher, proved inconsequential.
Jamison earned seven rushes in a first half defined by insistence on the pass.
Rutgers’ decision was by choice — Nova went untouched nearly each time he took a snap. Louisville’s, meanwhile, was forged from necessity.
A one-dimensional offense forced the Cardinals to the air, where both Bridgewater and Stein were competent but not nearly as effective.
Until it mattered.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t do it well enough,” Flood said. “That was the reality of today. The effort and the emotion that was pored into that game, right now, their hearts have been ripped out.”