By Kristian Dyer
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Rutgers wasn’t supposed to go into their bye last week coming off a loss.
They weren’t supposed to be 7-1, not after their tremendous start to the season that saw them rise to No. 15 in the BCS polls as of two weeks ago. Last Saturday’s 35-23 loss to Kent State was a humiliating game, the kind that has plagued the program since, well, pretty much when they invented college football on a cold November day in 1869. It was a gut-punch and ruined what had been a perfect and magical season but it needn’t be what happened to the Scarlet Knights on Nov. 18, 2006.
That game is etched in Rutgers football history, a 30-11 loss to Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium that remains one of the worst in the annals of the program, not for the score line but because of the implications. Against the Bearcats, Rutgers was coming into the game 9-0 and just a week removed from their iconic upset of Louisville. The Scarlet Knights were rolling towards their first ever Big East title until they met a Bearcats program on the rise and ripe for the upset. Rutgers still hasn’t won that first Big East title but its loss last weekend won’t derail that.
It is really a matter of raw data: Kent State isn’t a Big East team, leaving Rutgers a perfect 4-0 in the conference. There still remains Big East games against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Louisville, games that mean far more in the grand scheme of things than that loss, no matter how humiliating, to the Golden Flashes. Rutgers must take make the most of the bye last week and this week’s practices to regroup and refocus and make that last game a flash in the pan.
As tremendous as an undefeated, 12-0 season would mean for the program, the most immediate and pressing need for Rutgers is to win the Big East and get their first taste of a BCS bowl game. Let’s get one thing out of the way: Even undefeated there’s no way that Rutgers was going to the BCS title game, not given their relatively weak out of conference schedule. A loss to Kent State, as bad and embarrassing as it is, didn’t exactly spoil Rutgers bid to finish No. 1.
This is a team looking for legitimacy after major defections from the conference the past few years have turned the Big East from a perennial powerhouse into a no-man’s land of college football. It is also a team that in the new look, newly aligned “Far East” that includes programs such as Boise State and San Diego State and Houston and others, needs to establish itself as the best of a very mediocre situation.
A loss to Kent State, even one like the one they listlessly endured two Saturdays ago, is not the season withered away. Dropping games to Cincinnati or Pittsburgh or Louisville would be.
If Rutgers wins this Saturday against Army and their remaining slate of conference games then they can regain that ranking in the polls and they can do even more so by winning that BCS bowl game. Lessons must be learned from that Kent State game. The offense must be more efficient, quarterback Gary Nova must make decisions that won’t result in six interceptions and the defense simply must be able to handle a team that spreads the ball around like a Kent State.
But more than on the field, they must remove any semblance of a malaise resulting from the Kent State game.
They must decide to move on from this bye week, take their lumps from a loss that saw them tumble out of several polls and focus on the most important part of their season and that is winning the Big East. If they do that, then the now stinging loss to Kent State will be really inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
If they do that, then the big picture still remains.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the Jets for Metro New York and can be followed for news, insight and snarky comments plus breaking Jets news@KristianRDyer.
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