Rutgers still on the Rise

It wasn't too long ago Rutgers was an afterthought in college football, but that is no longer the case. Rutgers is one of five teams to win a bowl game each of the last four seasons, and one of 30 to reach a bowl in each of the last five seasons. But coach Greg Schiano wants to push the program even higher, both on the field and in the classroom, where the academic success is third nationally.

After the first quarter at Rutgers Stadium, the enormous video screen hovering over the south end zone flashes the face of every former member of the school's football program now in the NFL.

Yes, it takes a while to cycle through most of the 23 current NFL players from Rutgers, and the loudest ovations are reserved the players who put the Scarlet Knights back on the college football map. Snapshots and video of Brian Leonard, Ray Rice, Kenny Britt, Jeremy Zuttah, Courtney Greene and on and so are met with cheer after cheer.

Their standing at Rutgers is cemented as the core group responsible for reshaping a downtrodden program, which has now been to five straight bowl games.

The next group of players likely to be revered in the same vain will be the ones who bring the first Big East championship, and subsequently, the first BCS bid to Rutgers. Rather than taking a breath at rebuilding the program, coach Greg Schiano is focused on raising the level higher.

"Certainly, one thing good players want to do is they want to go to a bowl game every year,'' Schiano said. "Our next step is to start being able to show them not that we're close, but that we're winning championships, and that you can come here and have the whole ball of wax.

"That's something we have our eyes set on, and we're certainly trying to get there. But I think postseason play is important.''

Already, Rutgers is experiencing unparalleled success, which led to the stadium being expanded to seat 53,000, a $5 million recruiting lounge, state of the art meeting and academic rooms, a spacious locker room and a high-end weight training facility.

Former Rutgers and current
Baltimore Ravens RB Ray Rice
When Schiano hit the recruiting road after the New Year, he was also armed with a well-built program enjoying a type of success only a few others can claim.

When Rutgers pounded Central Florida 45-24 to win the St. Petersburg Bowl last month, it was its fourth straight bowl win. Only four other schools can claim to have won four bowl games in the last four years.

Also, the Scarlet Knights, starved for success for more than 130 years, are one of 30 schools to appear in five straight bowl games.

"I've said all along, you need to be consistent before you can be great,'' said Schiano, who finished his ninth year as the head coach. "When you're building a program, which is what we're doing …we've proven we're not here to hit-and-run and win some games, and then go take the next job.

"We're here to build a long-standing, successful program. With that in mind, you have to take the steps necessary so it lasts. I think we've done that, and we're poised and in a good position to move to the next level. That's what we've got to keep doing.''

The success is not something Schiano takes for granted.

Before his arrival, Rutgers won nine games in a season four times. After going 9-4 with true freshman Tom Savage the predominant starting quarterback, the Scarlet Knights won at least nine games twice in the last four years, and are averaging nine wins annually.

And the 2009 success speaks volumes about Savage's abilities, and upside, considering the history of true freshman quarterbacks starting at Rutgers. Savage went 8-3 as a starter, a marked improvement from the 2-19 mark the other true freshman starters posted in Rutgers history.

While the next few years look bright on offense because of Savage's development and a stable of skill players, it was the defense which carried the Scarlet Knights last season.

An opportunistic and sometimes dominating defense tied first nationally in fumbles recovered (19) and was second in turnover margin (1.54 per game). The Scarlet Knights were tied for fourth in sacks (40), tied for fifth in turnovers forced (34) and ninth in first downs allowed (15.2 per game).

Rutgers also led the Big East in total defense (307.8 ypg), scoring defense (17.9 ppg), turnover margin and sacks.

Former Rutgers and current Indianapolis Colts LB Gary Brackett
Yet, for all the success on the field, it is surpassed by the achievements off of it.

Rutgers ranks third in the Academic Progress Rate (APR), which measures a student-athletes progress toward graduation. Rutgers is also top among state schools.

It is a far cry from the era before Schiano took over in 2001, when Rutgers' failure rate in the classroom dwarfed its winning percentage. About one-third of the players were academic casualties before Schiano's arrival, and the program was 11-44 (.200) in the five seasons prior to his arrival.

In the Scarlet Knights' five straight bowl-bound seasons, they post a 43-21 (.672) record.

"I think the kids we recruit are interested in all of it,'' Schiano said. "I want them to love football, so I have no problems with them having a burning desire to get to the National Football League. If they don't have it, I'm worried.

"But I also want them to have a burning desire to get their degree. It's important to me they get their degree in something they're interested in, not something that fits their schedule.''

The track record of academic and athletic success is something the school trumpets.

"There's an opportunity to do it all,'' Schiano said. "You get a chance to be in a bowl game every year, and you get to be in the top of the NCAA Division I academics.

"When you pair our consistency, we've won an average of nine games a year for the last four years, and at the same time being in the top 5 in APR, that, to me, is a very powerful combination.''

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