By Kristian Dyer
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Four years ago this week, a ranked West Virginia team came into Piscataway for a game against a 5-2 Rutgers team. The Scarlet Knights donned their black jerseys for what they talked about as an upset bid, a dream that quickly turned into a nightmare on a rain-soaked afternoon as West Virginia ran out of New Jersey with a 31-3 win.
For Rutgers, who entered the game No. 25 in the nation, it was the last time they have ever cracked a national ranking.
It has been a downward spiral since then, bottoming out last year as the team finished 4-8, drawing snickers from the rest of the Big East.
Now this Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium, Rutgers is once again 5-2 and though there is no national ranking this time, the Scarlet Knights have upset ambitions on another Saturday afternoon predicted to be wet. But if Rutgers hopes to once again live up to being a part of the national conversation, a win over the Mountaineers is imperative.
It would be a long time coming for Rutgers and head coach Greg Schiano, who has never beaten West Virginia. It’s been close a few times, including the dramatic triple-overtime loss in 2006 in Morgantown -a defeat which killed their BCS ambitions, but Rutgers has not beaten West Virginia since 1994. The time is now for Rutgers to belly up to the bar.
Yet, Rutgers needs this win to regain some swagger in the crowded New York sportscape. College sports will always be second in New York City behind professional sports and college football perhaps a distant third in a town that loves its Big East basketball. In light of conference talk and realignment, Rutgers needs this signature moment to once again draw attention to a program that has had more downs then ups since that 2006 season.
That was supposed to be the year, spurred on by the last-second upset over Louisville before a national audience on Thursday night, that Rutgers had arrived. The program was led by future NFL players Brian Leonard and Ray Rice in the backfield and one of the nation’s best defenses. The roster had homegrown talent from New York and New Jersey and it seemed as if a program forever stuck in the wilderness had come to their promised land.
Since then, there have been winning seasons, but Rutgers never again found that magic or a top 10 ranking. Now, the program has earned the “one-hit wonder” label and rightly so, in the nation’s weakest BCS conference Rutgers has failed to even win the Big East title. That must change soon or else Rutgers will slip from relevance.
It can change for the positive on Saturday afternoon, perhaps the program’s biggest game since that loss to West Virginia four seasons ago.
Heading into this season, the Scarlet Knights have been just 12-16 in conference play, a testament to a team that, in the eleventh year under Greg Schiano, is still very much rebuilding. But the rebuilding must stop at some point; the program must be established and able to retool from year to year. The Mountaineers are the juggernaut of the Big East, a program that consistently represents the conference in the BCS. They are the model that Rutgers must follow if they want to be a powerhouse.
This is when Rutgers needs to step up to the plate and establish themselves again as a national program and not a one-hit wonder.
The Big East is there for the taking this year, a wide open conference and with a win, Rutgers can vault to the top and be in the driver’s seat for a New Year’s Day bowl. And after hauling in a top 25 recruiting class last year for the first time in program history, Rutgers has a talented young roster and most importantly, the kind of speed necessary to contain the spread offense they will face on Saturday afternoon. With all the talk about the ACC or Big 10 eyeing Rutgers as a potential program, a win on Saturday could show that a team that was blown out by the Mountaineers in 2007 is back once again.
And that this time, they’re for real.
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer
Will Schiano’s squad step up and take down the Mountaineers? Make your predictions below…