For this trip back in time, we stay in this millennium and travel to the banks of the Raritan. Heading into the 2006 football season, very few would have predicted an Associated Press ranking and double-digit victories for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Since joining the Big East in 1991, Rutgers had lost nearly twice as many games as they had won (56-110-1) through three head coaches (Doug Graber, Terry Shea, and Greg Schiano). There were some signs of improvement; a newly renovated stadium in 1994 and Rutgers’ second-ever bowl game appearance following the 2005 season. But even with these factored in, there wasn’t much that would indicate that 2006 would literally be a program-changing season for the Scarlet Knights.
The 2006 season began for Rutgers in Chapel Hill, North Carolina with a solid 21-16 victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels. In the following week’s home opener, the Scarlet Knights defeated future Big Ten ‘parity scheduling’ rival Illinois in a 33-0 shutout. (Note that just one season earlier, Rutgers had been Ron Zook’s first victory at Illinois in a 33-30 overtime game in Champaign.) Two more non-conference home victories against Ohio and Howard gave Rutgers a 4-0 record and an Associated Press ranking (#23) heading into the conference opener in Tampa versus South Florida.
Employing a ground-based offensive attack led by tailback Ray Rice and an opportunistic defense, the winning continued for Rutgers at South Florida, at Navy, at Pittsburgh, and versus Connecticut. Following the UConn game, the Scarlet Knights had climbed to #15 in the AP Top 25 heading into a bye week before a Thursday night nationally televised game against #3 Louisville.
The wins and the poll rankings were one thing. Something more important was happening for Rutgers, though. College football was becoming relevant in the New York City area (aside from the Notre Dame and Penn State fans in the region). Rutgers 8-game winning streak had such an effect upon the New York Metropolitan Area that the Empire State Building was illuminated in red prior to the Louisville game.
Watching the Louisville at Rutgers game from my (then) home in Cedar Rapids, there was a genuinely electric atmosphere from the standing-room-only crowd of 44,111 in Piscataway. The Scarlet Knights defense was able to shut down Bobby Petrino’s offense; holding the Cardinals to 266 total yards and just 163 yards passing. On offense, Rutgers rode tailback Ray Rice’s 131 yards rushing (on 22 carries). Louisville jumped out to a 25-14 halftime lead; however, Rutgers defense and running game wore down Louisville. The Scarlet Knights outscored Louisville 14-0 in the second half to get the 28-25 victory; with fans storming the field after this come-from-behind victory.
The Louisville victory got Rutgers into the AP Top 10; however it was a rather short trip. The next week Rutgers traveled to Nippert Stadium and were upset by Mark Dantonio’s (yes, THAT Mark Dantonio) Cincinnati Bearcats 30-11 (maybe that’s why Michigan State and Rutgers are playing each other at the end of this season?). A bounce-back win at home versus Syracuse (in the home finale) set up the game for the Big East Championship the next in Morgantown versus Rich Rodriguez’s #15 ranked West Virginia Mountaineers.
The Rutgers at West Virginia game on December 2 was a classic back-and-forth affair. Rich Rodriguez’s spread option attack pitted against Greg Schiano’s stout 4-3 defense. Rutgers jumped out to a 10-6 halftime lead. West Virginia outscored Rutgers 14-7 to take a 20-17 lead at the end of 3 quarters. 2 Jeremy Ito field goals gave Rutgers a 23-20 lead late in the forth quarter; however, with 53 seconds to go in regulation the Mountaineers tied the game at 23 sending it into overtime. In the first 2 overtimes Rutgers and West Virginia matched field goals. In the third overtime West Virginia got a touchdown and successfully converted the (mandatory) 2-point conversion. Rutgers matched the touchdown with Ray Rice scoring from 1 yard out, but missed the 2-point conversion. This gave West Virginia the 41-39 victory and the Big East title.
Despite a second-place Big East finish and a #16 ranking, Rutgers was relegated to the Texas Bowl. There they blew out Bill Snyder’s Kansas State Wildcats 37-10; earning their 11th win of the season. Win #11 had additional significance for Rutgers, as it was the first bowl game victory in the program’s history (kicking off a streak of 5 straight bowl game victories over 6 seasons). And one could perhaps argue, that this 2006 season of unprecedented success paved the way for Rutgers eventually joining the Big Ten 8 years later.
Northwestern - The Upset
Indiana - The Real Game of the Century
Nebraska - Surrender Whites
Michigan State - Earning a Rematch