Perspective change for bowl-eligible Rutgers

Rutgers is ranked No. 25 and bowl eligible with three games remaining heading into Saturday's contest at Syracuse. Bowl eligibility was once met with storming the field against Navy, but the Scarlet Knights have pushed to bigger and better things. Seven players have been in Piscataway for all five seasons, and have witnessed the transformation of the program.

Growing up in Maryland, in the northern reaches of ACC country, Joe Lefeged had very little exposure to Rutgers. And it wasn't good.

"I heard about them playing video games and stuff like that,'' he said. "It was always, ‘I'm not going to be them.' ‘'

For the last three seasons, he is one of them, the Scarlet Knights' starting strong safety, and is part of an amazing transformation for a program that was once the laughingstock of college football.

In 2005, bowl eligibility was marked with fans storming the field after beating Navy. Yes, Navy.

When the Scarlet Knights, ranked No. 25 heading into Saturday's game at Syracuse, gained bowl eligibility with a 31-0 domination of then-No. 23-South Florida on Nov. 12, many of the Scarlet Knights (7-2) said it wasn't even on their minds.

The 2008 Bowl
"It's very different from the fact that you don't really think about it anymore,'' said right tackle Kevin Haslam, one of seven seniors in their fifth year at Rutgers. "When people ask me, ‘What bowl game are you going to?' I have no idea. I haven't even looked. I have no idea what bowls there are.

"It's something where you build a tradition around here, and it's like, ‘All right, you're going to a bowl game at the end of the year.' It never really came to mind that we're not going to go.''

The win against South Florida virtually assured Rutgers will go to a fifth straight bowl game (it will be guaranteed if Connecticut losses to Notre Dame this week), and is a preposterous notion given the Scarlet Knights' first 135 seasons produced one bowl appearance.

Prior to the 2005 bid to the Insight Bowl, Rutgers' only bowl appearance was in the 1978 …wait for it …

Garden State Bowl.

"I think the possibility of being able to play in five bowl games since I've been here is just phenomenal,'' fifth-year senior cornerback Devin McCourty said. "When we went to that first bowl game, you just walked with a hoodie on or something …when people would come up and say thank you, you start realizing what it means to be winning around here.''

Where Rutgers winds will take a few more weeks to settle. The Gator Bowl, the Meineke Bowl, the St. Petersburg Bowl and the International Bowl are all in play.

But the change took time for ninth-year coach Greg Schiano to orchestrate, and was painful. During the days the fifth-year seniors were being recruited, Rutgers was in the midst of a 7-38 stretch covering four seasons.

Still, McCourty, Haslam, linebacker Damaso Munoz, center Ryan Blaszczyk, quarterback Jabu Lovelace, long snapper Andrew DePaola and cornerback Billy Anderson signed on with the Scarlet Knights.

Lefeged, a junior, was born in 1988. By the time he reached high school, Rutgers had two winning and one winless season in his lifetime, and were getting blown out by Temple (49-7 in '97 and 3-5 in ‘01), losing to Division I-AA programs (Villanova in '02 and New Hampshire in '04) and dropping 25 straight Big East games.

The 2008 International Bowl
Boy, how things are different.

When Rutgers broke in the Associated Press poll for the first time in more than two years after the South Florida win, it was barely a conversation topic for the players.

"It is nice (to be ranked) but that is more for the fans and for the alums and that kind of thing,'' Schiano said. "It is better than not being ranked, and hopefully, if we can keep playing the best that we are capable of, hopefully we can climb in those polls.''

The return to the polls also speaks to the staying power of the Scarlet Knights.

Their breakout season was 2006, when a 9-0 start, capped by the "Pandemonium in Piscataway'' night in which the 15th-ranked Scarlet Knights rallied from 18 points down to upend No. 3 Louisville, brought national recognition to the program.

And, unlike the previous few decades, the recognition was positive.

Lefeged, in his second year as a starter, committed to Rutgers during the 2006 run. The following season the Scarlet Knights climbed to No. 10 after starting 3-0, but losses to Maryland and Cincinnati knocked them out of the polls until this week.

"That first year, we were ranked, top 15 in the country,'' Lefeged said. "It's been hard, it's been tough, we fought our way back. We've done a good job as a program of getting back into the top 25.''

But now, with the success of winning three straight bowl games, is bowl eligibility and creeping into the rankings nine games into a season enough?

"People are still just saying thank you,'' McCourty said, "but pretty soon I think they will starting to ask, ‘Where's the Big East championship?' ‘'

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