By Steve Lichtenstein
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Was that Rex Ryan giving Rutgers its pregame pep talk last night?
My initial reaction following the Knights’ inexplicable 20-17 home loss to Louisville was that I had never seen anything like it before.
Oh wait, yes I have.
The big tease — getting oh-so-close to the ultimate destination only to bumble and fumble it away — is straight out of the New York Jets’ playbook.
Rutgers, which could have clinched its first-ever BCS Bowl berth last week if they had showed up in Pittsburgh, blew their chance for redemption despite having everything set up perfectly for a momentous “Knight.” They were playing before an excited home crowd, and they were facing a Cardinals team whose starting quarterback suited up with multiple injuries.
Yet, as the Jets have so often done, the Knights kicked prosperity in the teeth. They turned a 14-3 halftime lead around with a penalty that negated a Rutgers touchdown on a fake field-goal pass and a long Louisville touchdown drive. They then allowed a kickoff-return fumble that set up Louisville’s second touchdown pass in 16 seconds by the gimpy Teddy Bridgewater.
Let’s not forget two horrendous drops by Rutgers senior wide receiver Tim Wright, the first one slipping through his hands before he could turn the corner to freely glide into the end zone.
Then, with the game tied at 17-17 and under four minutes to play, Wright leaped to corral an on-target pass from quarterback Gary Nova only to have the ball pop up off his pads and into the arms of Louisville’s James Burgess, setting up the Cardinals’ go-ahead field goal with 1:41 to go.
It all culminated with a ridiculous Nova interception that bore a striking resemblance to some of the ill-timed decisions made by Jets signal caller Mark Sanchez. Not only did Nova fail to communicate properly with receiver Brandon Coleman, who turned out when Nova was expecting a fly, but Nova’s high-arching toss stayed aloft so long that Louisville’s Terell Floyd was able to get downfield to make a diving catch of the duck that put an end to Rutgers’ dreams.
You could argue that I’m overreaching if this were the first such heartbreaking Rutgers defeat under the regime built by current Bucs coach Greg Schiano — and extended to caretaker Kyle Flood. Schiano, who deserves credit for turning around decades of mostly lousy Rutgers football, never could win the big one either.
I was hooked into that 2006 squad that featured multiple future professionals, including the running back tandem of Ray Rice and Brian Leonard. While I’ll never forget the energy in the stadium during Rutgers’ thrilling 28-25 victory over Louisville that vaulted the undefeated Knights into the Top 10, the ensuing stink also endures.
Rutgers followed up on its historic triumph by losing two of its next three, including the Big East finale in West Virginia.
Again, with everything on the line, Rutgers could not finish the job, falling 41-39 in triple overtime when Rice could not come down with a two-point conversion.
Even last year’s squad — which was pretty much a one-man act starring the gifted receiver Mohamed Sanu — threw away its opportunities. There was another crushing two-point loss to Louisville when receiver Mark Harrison dropped a sure fourth-quarter touchdown pass and then, when they desperately needed a win to stay alive for a share of the Big East title, they had a no-show drubbing at sub-.500 Connecticut.
All this sound familiar?
Unfortunately, Jets fans can empathize all too well. No one this side of Charlie Brown knows the pain of having the football pulled away at the most potentially joyous moments more than the diehards that support Gang Green.
“The Mud Bowl,” the “Fake Spike,” the Mark Gastineau roughing-the-passer playoff in Cleveland — I can still feel the stings from these chapters in Jets lore. Quarterbacks from Richard Todd to Ken O’Brien to Vinny Testaverde to Brett Favre to Sanchez have led the Jets to the cusp of glory, but not quite all the way.
Whether it was injuries, poor coaching decisions or some paranormal activity disguised as bad luck, something has always prevented the Jets from replicating their lone 1969 Super Bowl title season.
Now it seems that this virus has spread south down the turnpike to Rutgers, who will only find it more difficult to run the gauntlet when it transfers to the Big Ten (Twelve? Fourteen? I guess you don’t need to count to get into college any more) no later than 2014.
Here’s a piece of advice for Flood: If your educational mission includes teaching your kids to emulate the pros, you’d be better off heading to the other side of MetLife Stadium to study the methods of Tom Coughlin and his two-time Super Bowl championship Giants.
Are you still reeling from last night’s heartbreaking defeat? Will Rutgers EVER get to a BCS Bowl? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…