In the school's first game as a ranked team in three decades, the No. 23 Scarlet
Knights held on for a 22-20 victory when South Florida failed to make a two-point
conversion with 15 seconds remaining Friday night.
"It means a lot to this program," fullback Brian Leonard said. "I don't think a lot of people thought we should be ranked at this point. After this game, I think we proved that we should be."
Ray Rice ran for 202 yards and two touchdowns for Rutgers (5-0, 1-0 Big East), which is unbeaten through five games for the first time since 1976 - the last season the Scarlet Knights also appeared in The Associated Press poll.
Jeremy Ito kicked field goals of 32, 40 and 53 yards but had a 42-yarder that would have clinched the game blocked, giving South Florida an opportunity to make it interesting at the end.
Matt Grothe threw a 16-yard TD pass to Ean Randolph to give USF a chance to send it into overtime, but the quarterback's pass on the conversion attempt was dropped by a wide-open Amp Hill in the left side of the end zone.
The Bulls recovered the ensuing onside kick, but the officials ruled a South Florida player touched ball before it traveled 10 yards and awarded possession to Rutgers.
"It wasn't pretty, but we found a way to win this game," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "On the road, down at the half, that's what you need to do."
Rice matched a school record with his seventh consecutive 100-yard game, boosting his season total to 806 yards and 11 touchdowns. He scored on a 3-yard run in the first quarter and added a 6-yarder that gave Rutgers the lead for good early in the fourth.
Grothe completed 16 of 25 passes for 241 yards and one TD for South Florida. He also scored on runs of 1 and 22 yards, but his three second-half turnovers - two interceptions and a fumble - helped Rutgers overcome a 14-10 halftime deficit.
"We had too many turnovers, too many mistakes," South Florida coach Jim Leavutt said. "You can't beat a nationally ranked team if you have that many mistakes. That's the way it is."
Rutgers cracked the Top 25 this week for the first time since its 1976 perfect season, and Rice is one of the biggest reasons why.
The 5-foot-9, 195-pound sophomore entered Friday night averaging 151 yards per game rushing and carried seven times for 39 yards on the Scarlet Knights' opening 79-yard touchdown drive. Ito's first field goal gave Rutgers a 10-0 lead before Grothe rallied South Florida to its halftime lead.
Grothe turned the game around by leading two long TD drives in a 3:45 span in the second quarter. He used completions of 35 yards to Amarri Jackson and 32 yards to Taurus Johnson to set up his 1-yard scoring run, then took advantage of Trae Williams' fifth interception of the season to put the Bulls ahead 14-10 on his 22-yard TD run.
Rice ran 18 times for 82 yards in the first half and went over 100 yards for the seventh straight game on his first carry of the third quarter, a 27-yard scamper that led to Ito's 40-yard field goal that trimmed the Scarlet Knights' deficit to 14-13.
Rice's streak of 100-yard games ties the Rutgers record set by J.J. Jennings between Nov. 25, 1972, and Nov. 7, 1973. Rice has topped the plateau 10 times in 17 career games, tied for third in school history.
The 200-yard performance was his second this season and third overall.
"It was a tough win. That's all I can say," Rice said. "Forget
about the rankings and all that stuff. South Florida is a great team. It was
a tough game."