PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — It’s almost like starting over for coach Greg Schiano, isn’t it? After all, Rutgers is coming off a losing season, and is picked to finish last in the Big East.
Sound familiar? Well, it’s been a few years, but clearly it’s not uncharted waters for Schiano and the Scarlet Knights.
In fact, that’s just how it always was in the early portion of his tenure … until the Scarlet Knights produced five consecutive bowl appearances, four of which they won.
But the streak ended with last year’s 4-8 campaign, a season which was marred by a horrific injury, a declining defense and a porous offensive line.
But there’s nowhere to go but up, and Schiano, who begins his 11th season in sixth place among active Division I coaches in uninterrupted tenure at one school, hopes losing provides a renewed hunger.
“I would be lying if I said what happened last year doesn’t affect each and every one of us,” he said. “We fully expect to be back to, and beyond, where we have been in this program. Do I think (last year) adds an extra little bit of juice to things? Sure it does.”
The Big East media doesn’t see improvement coming quickly, though. After an unexpected last-place finish last season, well, the reporters seem to think Rutgers should expect to finish there this year.
“That’s a lot of motivation,” said sophomore quarterback Chas Dodd, whose surprise emergence last season eventually forced 2009 starter Tom Savage to transfer. “As soon as I saw that, I was just really motivated from it. The guys were, too.”
Junior tackle Scott Vallone, one of five defensive returnees, felt Rutgers suffered some bad breaks last year. But there is no sympathy internally.
“We don’t make any excuses. We didn’t play well enough to win games,” he said. “Coming into camp, we all had a sour taste in our mouth and we’re anxious to get out there for the first game.”
The Scarlet Knights lost their final six games after defensive tackle Eric LeGrand suffered a serious spinal injury making a special teams tackle against Army Oct. 16.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” senior fullback Joe Martinek said. “We had a lot of things happen, team-wise, personally. It was a really hard season, it tested our family, how close we were.”
Either way, Rutgers must upgrade an offense that finished 114th overall nationally, and 110th in rushing.
Dodd replaced Savage as the starter four games into the season, but could not offset an offensive line that allowed an NCAA-record 61 sacks. Jordan Thomas was the team’s leading rusher with just 417 yards and Dodd was up and down in completing 55.2 percent of his passes for 1,637 yards.
He had 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions.
To help change that, Schiano brought in Frank Cignetti, a highly acclaimed offensive coordinator from Pitt. After 20 years in coaching, including two fruitful years in that role with the Panthers, Cignetti has returned Rutgers to a run-oriented, pro-style offense that should aid returning linemen Antwan Lowery, Desmond Wynn and Andre Civil.
The receiving corps of Mohamed Sanu, Mark Harrison, Tim Wright and redshirt freshman Brandon Coleman is a strong point, and all eyes are on true freshman tailback Savon Huggins, New Jersey’s top-rated recruit.
Defensively, all five returning starters — Vallone, Manny Abreu, Steve Beauharnais, Khaseem Greene and David Rowe — are at new positions as the Scarlet Knights look to get more athletic. The linebackers have potential, but there are question marks on the line and in the secondary.
Rutgers was last in the Big East in total defense (374.1 yards), and seventh in scoring defense (26.5). Rutgers allowed 144 points and 1,601 yards in its final three games.
With hopes of getting back to a bowl, the Scarlet Knights will try to make some hay in the early going, before the conference slate picks up. They will open vs. North Carolina Central, but will also play North Carolina and Ohio, before the Big East opener at Syracuse.
“We’d been to all those bowl games, had those experiences, visited those places,” Martinek said. “It was such a great feeling. And last year, we end the season and just go home.
“It was definitely different and it’s not something we like to do around here.”