It was perhaps the most anticipated game in many years at Rutgers.
It was a contest that had important ramifications for the bowl aspirations of two up and coming teams - the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the University of Connecticut Huskies.
UConn came in at 7-3 and needed another win to convince the bowls that the upstart Huskies had "arrived."
RU came in at 4-4 and desperately needed to rein in a "winnable" fifth win. If they could, the Knights were within legitimate shooting range of 6-5 season and entitlement to one of the Big East's guaranteed bowl bids.
Here's how it went.
The Knights took the opening kick off. RU quickly put together a 12 play, 65 yard drive mixing pass plays and running plays including a great third down conversion catch by late starter Tres Moses. The Knights drive stalled inside the UConn 10 and RU was forced to settle for a 23 yard field goal by Ryan Sands.
After an exchange of punts the Huskies started a drive on their own 47. UConn, like RU, used a mix to runs and passes on a 53 yard drive for the first touchdown of the game putting the Huskies up 7-3.
The Knights started moving the ball again on offense when a Ryan Hart pass was intercepted by the Huskies on UConn 43 yard line. It was then that the RU defense rose to the challenge. After holding the Huskies on three downs, Nate Jones blocked the attempted UConn kick and Marcus Facyson picked up the ball and ran it 36 yards into the Husky endzone to put the Knights up 10-7.
The two teams exchanged punts twice. While RU was able to get a first down here and there; UConn had not been able to do same. On each exchange the Huskies were starting deeper in their own territory. Finally, RU re-ignited their offense moving the ball on a 70 yard drive that ended with a 26 yard touchdown pass from Ryan Hart to Marcus Facyson.
At the end of the first half it was Rutgers 17- UConn 7.
The Rutgers offense had held the Huskies (who had averaged over 490 yards a game) to only 100 yards in the first.
Ryan Hart was 11 for 20 in the first half for 110 yards and a 55% completion per centage. Brian Leonard led the Knights with 13 carries for 58 yards (4.5 yard per carry average). Tres Moses (who was a doubtful starter) had 5 catches for 30 yards with a long of 13.
In the second half, UConn came out showing that he had no intention of folding. A Dan Orlovsky pass quickly put the ball in RU territory. A pass interference call against Brandon Haw put the ball inside the RU 30. A Cornell Brockington run put the ball inside the 15. On the next play Brockington took the ball through the Rutgers middle and into the endzone. Suddenly UConn was within three points of the Knights.
On the next RU series the Knights started moving the ball but a Shawn Tucker fumble gave the Huskies the ball on the RU 43 and a chance to turn the game around immediately. UConn did just that. In a play yard drive the Huskies took the ball into the endzone to take the lead 21-17.
Rutgers had to answer back.
RU powered an 74 yard drive featuring the running of Brian Leonard. Leonard made "drive saving" run after run and capped it off with a one yard run for a TD that put the Knights up 24-21.
Now, the Knights needed a stop. They got it. RU forced the Huskies into a 4 and 11 from their own thirty and re-took possession from the Huskies as the third period ended.
The quarter started out well for the Knights. Starting the drive on the RU 2 yard line, Brian Leonard immediately ripped off an 11 yard gain to get the Knights a first down and better field position. Two plays later Leonard ripped off another large gain to set up a pass play to Sam Johnson which put the ball into UConn territory. However, at that point an interception by the Huskies and a 50 yard return set up UConn deep in RU territory. The RU stiffened at their own 3 yard line and forced the Huskies to settle for a field goal to tie the game 24-24.
RU couldn't move the ball on its next possession and with five minutes to go in the game UConn took over on its own 37. The Knights seemed to be in the driver's seat when, after an intentional grounding call, UConn had 2 and 20. It was then that disaster struck. Dan Orlovsky hit Keron Henry for a 72 yard touchdown pass to give UConn a 31-24 lead.
With four minutes to go in the game, RU had the ball in a must score situation. Ryan Hart engineered a 80 yard drive capped off by a 35 yard Brian Leonard touchdown run to tie the game at 31 with just under two minutes to go in the game.
When they needed to the RU defense came through. They held the Huskies to three and out and forced a punt but Tres Moses fumbled the punt allowing UConn to recover on the RU five yard line with just over one minute left in the game. Three plays later Cornell Brockington sprinted into the end zone to give UConn a 38-31 lead with 26 seconds left in the game.
Some desperation trick plays by the Knights ended up in a fumble which was recovered by UConn to end the game.
Things to feel good about:
- The Knights had 455 yards of total offense to 321 for the Huskies. Rutgers clearly outplayed a very good Connecticut team, which will be heading to a bowl. The Knights showed themselves to be at least as good as the Huskies.
- Brian Leonard had a sensational game. Leonard 33 carries for 187 yards. He also caught 2 passes for 33 yards.
- The Knight offense again showed its versatility. The Knights moved the ball in the air and on the ground. Ryan Hart hit seven different receivers in the game.
Things to be concerned about:
- UConn didn't win this game. Rutgers lost it. This can be expected from a young team but that doesn't make it any less frustrating.
Mike Fasano: MikeFasano@comcast.net
Mike and the Big Dog's LLC