The Conquering Hero
In 2002, they came to The Banks as child warriors. Following the clarion call of their charismatic general instead of the cries of common sense, they headed to Piscataway, gambling their bodies, their education, their very futures on the dubious words of Greg Schiano.
Their welcome was not warm. They were battered and bruised by foes far greater than themselves. They were mocked and ridiculed. Most of their comrades fell along the way, yet those who persevered finally received the merit that they deserved with the cheers of the throngs and the accolades of their peers.
By some standards, the 2002 recruiting class was a bust. Highly regarded players such as Berkeley Hutchinson, Will Gilkison and Randy Boxill either never made it to The Banks or faltered along the way.
However, among those who came and stayed is one the most steadfast warriors that The Scarlet Knights have known in their long, illustrious history: Brian Leonard.
Originally seen by some as a promising linebacker, as a fullback, Leonard became the core around which Coach Greg Schiano built his offense. Quiet and reserved, those of us who only saw him from a distance will never fully understand the pains that Leonard suffered through the years of losing. Like many great football warriors who came before, Brian Leonard has shown little in the way of depression or happiness to the public, yet on game days, he never failed to play hard, regardless of the opponent, the score or the record.
Brian Leonard is not the only Scarlet Knight who is leaving, and he does so in the company of some of the finest student-athletes that Rutgers has seen in recent memory.
Yet, Brian Leonard is deservedly the star. Even as his playmaking was deemphasized, his skill, steadfastness and leadership have been the driving forces that propelled his team to the precipice of greatness upon which they now stand.
Pound for pound, inch for inch and star for star, Rutgers does not match up with teams on the top echelons of College Football that teem with the finest athletes in the country. The Defenders of The Raritan may not be as strong or as talented as some of their opponents, but led by Brian Leonard, this team can outmatch any competition in drive and determination.
That has been the difference in this extraordinary season. It will be sorely missed after Brian Leonard is gone.
A Date with Destiny
What has not already been said about the Scarlet Knights' final regular season game? The month of November was an emotional rollercoaster for the team and their fans. From the thrill of victory over Louisville to the agony of defeat at Cincinnati to the triumphant farewell to the seniors against Syracuse and the ever-present crush of media attention, this team has experienced all of the human drama of athletic competition in a very short time span.
Having coached at Miami and Penn State, one might assume that Greg Schiano is familiar with the pressure that comes with all this attention, but in reality, Greg Schiano has never been the center of attention as he is now. Yet, as difficult as it may be for the coach, it is even more difficult for the players. It is an exciting time for them, but it is very hard to get perspective while riding a rollercoaster.
The West Virginia game will bring about a whole new set of challenges including dealing with a hostile crowd. It is hard enough to get a high level of intensity in an away game against a mediocre team. To do so against a multi-talented West Virginia team, the team will need to dig deeper than ever before.
The reward is worth the struggle, though. Rutgers would win the Big East for the first time in their history. They would enter the upper-echelons of post-season competition.
The two biggest surprises in college football this year have been Rutgers and Wake Forest. Now these two Cinderella stories each can make it to the Orange Bowl with one more win tomorrow. Think of the possibilities: Rutgers vs. Wake Forest. Cinderella vs. Cinderella. Mano a mano. (or is Cinderella womano?)
That would be cool.
Around the Big East
On Monday, Cincinnati head coach Mark Dantonio announced that he was accepting the Head Coaching job at Michigan State, replacing John L. Smith. Dantonio was the Secondary coach at Michigan State from 1995 through 2000. Dantonio has lead the Bearcats to a 7-5 (5-3) record this season including a win over #7 Ranked Rutgers two weeks ago. Cincinnati offered to match the Michigan State offer, but was turned down.
All but two of the Cincinnati assistant coaches resigned on Tuesday to accept positions with Michigan State, but they will all remain to prepare for the bowl game. The Bearcats have named Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi their interim head coach even though he has been offered the MSU Defensive Coordinator position. There is no word on likely candidates for Dantonio's job at Cincinnati, but the school is expected to make a decision before the end of the year.
The good news for Cincinnati is their performance in Big East play. They started the season with a 3-4 record, but won 4 of their last 5 contests including a come-from-behind victory over Connecticut in their last game of the season.
South Florida also ended their season on a high note, upsetting #7 West Virginia 24-19, sending the Mountaineers tumbling to #15 in the polls. The Bulls took advantage of their speedy defense to hold the Mountaineers to only 132 yards rushing and took advantage of four West Virginia turnovers.
Having ended their season 8-4 (4-3), The Bulls need only wait to see what bowl they will be headed to.
Cincinnati and South Florida are tied in the Big East. One will most likely receive a bid to the International Bowl in Toronto, Canada (January 6) and the other to the PapaJohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Alabama (December 23).
It has been over a month since Pittsburgh gained bowl eligibility with an easy win at Central Florida. Since that win, however, the Panthers have dropped 5 straight games with their final embarrassment being completely dominated at home against #8 Louisville 48-24. Despite their 6-6 overall record, the Panthers are ineligible to be selected by any Big East bowl by virtue of their 2-5 Big East record and are unlikely to be selected by any other bowl.
The Panthers' troubles appear to have started after their 20-10 home loss to Rutgers on October 21st after which the Panthers played listless football. The problems came to a head as the Panther Defense gave up last minute drives of 98 and 77 yards to let Connecticut back into their November 11th contest. UConn went on to win in double overtime. Head Coach Dave Wannstedt will be evaluating his coaching staff, and is expected to replace defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads and possibly others.
The final game of the year for the Connecticut Huskies (4-7, 1-5) will be tomorrow at #6 Louisville (Noon, ESPN). Despite a few bright moments such as wins over Indiana and Pittsburgh, this season has been another disappointment and the Huskies will likely end up in possession of last place in the Big East, having lost to Syracuse two weeks ago.
The big question for the Big East is at the top of the ticket. Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia will be battling this weekend to determine who receives bids to a BCS Bowl, the Gator Bowl (Jan. 1), the Sun Bowl (Dec. 29) and the Texas Bowl (Dec. 28).
This weekend is what college football is all about. Enjoy the excitement!
-- The views expressed in this editorial do not necessarily reflect those of StateOfRutgers.com. If those views differ from yours, visit the message boards and tell everyone what you think.