The Scarlet Knights kept the Meineke Car Care Bowl in their sights with a never-in-question rout of Louisville, rushing for 239 yards and four scores in a 34-14 win Friday in front of 23,422 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
A pair of true freshman led Rutgers' offense, with 6-foot-2, 215-pound receiver Mohamed Sanu effectively running the "Wildcat" package and quarterback Tom Savage shaking off a poor last performance to give his most efficient.
Sanu ran 18 times for 148 yards, including touchdown runs of four and 29 yards. Savage connected on his first eight passes and finished 10 of 16 for 163 yards and a touchdown. Running back Joe Martinek added 90 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in what could be embattled Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe's final game.
"I'm really proud of our kids,'' Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "They really responded the way I thought they would, but you never know until you go out there and do it. I thought they played hard.''
In building a 28-7 lead, Savage was 9 of 11 for 151 yards in the first half.
"I felt like I was getting in a groove early and I was enjoying it,'' Savage said. "Our offensive line was blocking awesome, like they always do, so it was easy out there.''
Rutgers (8-3, 3-3 Big East) concludes its regular season next week when it hosts nemesis West Virginia, which Rutgers last beat in 1994. If Notre Dame loses to Stanford on Saturday and Pittsburgh defeats the Mountaineers later tonight, it could set up the winner of the West Virginia vs. Rutgers' game for the Dec. 26 Meineke Bowl in Charlotte against an ACC team.
The win also means Rutgers likely will not head to the International Bowl in Toronto, meaning the other destination in play is the Dec. 19 St. Petersburg Bowl against a Conference USA foe.
"Right now, the best thing we can do for our bowl position is play the best we can against West Virginia,'' Schiano said. "If we can win that game, I'm sure that helps us somewhere. You're never hurt by winning.''
But the metamorphosis of Rutgers' Wildcat package was the staple against the Cardinals.
Sanu lined up there 22 times, handing off to De'Antwan Williams twice, throwing to receiver Tim Brown twice (both were incomplete but should have been caught) and running 18 times.
"I was just trying to read the linemen and see holes develop and hit it,'' Sanu said. "We just saw openings, and tried to hit the openings.''
It was also something the Scarlet Knights game-planned to use with high frequency.
"Mohamed is a really special talent,'' Schiano said. "We keep expanding that little by little. Like we talk about all the time, you earn your touches around here. So, Mohamed, we keep feeling like we need to keep getting the ball in his hands more, so we need to find different ways to do that.''
On Rutgers' opening drive, Sanu kept it three times for 20 yards, but the key play came when Savage found Brown on slant for 19 yards on a third-and-8. Martinek capped the drive with a 2-yard run as Rutgers went ahead 7-0 with 9:12 left in the first quarter.
The Scarlet Knights mixed the offense on the next possession, but the result was the same. In one of its most impressive drives this season, a sprinkling of Martinek running and Savage throwing kick-started the drive. A few runs by Sanu helped move the ball to the Louisville 2-yard line, and two plays later Savage scored his first career touchdown on a 3-yard run to make it 14-0.
"It's safe to say our defense, the whole season, was firing on all cylinders,'' Rutgers right guard Art Forst said. "It's nice to play …up to their level. It was definitely nice to come out and contribute to the team like that on offense.''
Although Louisville pulled within 14-7 on a 6-yard touchdown catch by Trent Guy, the Scarlet Knights responded quickly, and with a few big plays.
Savage began the drive with a 24-yard pass to Brown, Sanu added a 34-yard run, and he capped the drive with a 4-yard run into the right corner to give the Scarlet Knights 21-7 with 5:05 left in the half.
Rutgers then capped its most prolific scoring first half of the season against a non-Division I-AA school when a twisting Brown hauled in 32-yard touchdown reception from Savage with 1:12 left in the half.
"The first half we were on fire,'' Savage said. "The offense was doing awesome and our defense was getting the ball back. We can't ask for anything more than that.''