Rutgers narrowly losing to a suspension-riddled North Carolina team was difficult to accept, but understandable considering the Scarlet Knights' ongoing struggles on offense. It is far harder to come to grips with last week's three-point loss to Tulane at home. Consider that Rutgers accumulated more than 100 more total yards on offense, and turned in another in a string of stellar defensive performances. The Green Wave attack was only moderately efficient, largely benefiting from excellent field position on the day. To lose by a field goal to a Tulane team that has not otherwise done anything of note on the year is beyond disheartening.
Blame for the loss falls squarely on the shoulders of an ineffective offense that is proving largely unable to either score points or sustain drives. Quarterback Tom Savage has regressed while battling through multiple injuries, and the offensive line has fallen to new depths past last year's abysmal performance. Chas Dodd stepped in for an injured Savage in the second half against Tulane, and actually did provide somewhat of a spark. Dodd threw a few errant passes that ultimately culminated in a loss-clinching interception. He does appear to have a solid grasp of the team's offense though, and displayed very good arm strength.
Rutgers finally started building some momentum on offense in the second half following the quarterback substitution, but simply did not have enough time remaining to overcome following into an early hole. With a surging UConn coming to town this week, Rutgers will have to regroup on short rest, in the hopes of not falling into the rut of a three game home losing streak. If that were to happen, then RU's chances at another winning season and a bowl bid would start to fall into serious jeopardy. The fans are already starting to point figures, and demanding staff turnover on the offensive side of the ball.
If Rutgers is to have a chance in this game, then last year's contest in Storrs is about as good of a model as any to cite. An injured Cody Endres departed early, leaving an overmatched Zach Frazer to be befuddled by the RU defense. The Scarlet Knights were able to rocket ahead early with several big plays, but were unable to sustain long drives due to poor offensive line play. A tired defense eventually allowed the Huskies to claw their way back. Two consecutive UConn scores swung a 21-10 Rutgers lead early in the fourth quarter to being down 24-21 with only 38 seconds left. The Huskies had just pulverized the game clock and RU's will with a methodical charge down the field.
Any lingering hope seemed for naught, and then something absolutely remarkable happened. This play must be seen to be believed.
With only 33 seconds left in the fourth quarter, quarterback Tom Savage fires a bullet to the diminutive Tim Brown, leaping over a corner to make the catch in stride. With the assist of one of the worst tackling angles you will ever see from the UConn safety, Brown cuts upfield and wills straight to the end zone for a 81-yard touchdown and the victory. An entire game comes undone in one single decisive play, sending Rutgers into elation and euphoria, and resigning UConn to despair. Once again the Scarlet Knights had been backed up against the wall at mid-season, and for the umpteenth time they had somehow found the way to steady their course and get back on track.
The craziest part of it all is that what happened there on the field does not come close to capturing how monumental the play truly was. After reaching the end zone, Brown symbolically holds up six fingers, in honor of his close childhood friend Jasper Howard. Howard, a starting UConn cornerback, had been tragically murdered only weeks before at an after-hours party on the UConn campus. As their best defensive back, in all likelihood he would have been responsible for covering Tim Brown on that play.
Only weeks ago UConn too looked to be a team in crisis, but then their fortunes turned on a dime. Their coach Randy Edsall had stubbornly insisted on starting senior Zach Frazer at quarterback, even though underclassman Cody Endres had been far more effective under center in 2009. Edsall was further backed into a corner after suspending Endres for an off-field discretion. After three straight awful Frazer performances in September, and UConn in serious danger of losing to Buffalo, the desperate Husky coach had no choice but to make a change.
The results were near immediate, with a 14-14 halftime tie snowballing into a final 45-21 blowout in UConn's favor. This was the offense that struggled against Michigan's dreadful secondary, and had just lost to a MAC team? When you throw a productive running attack led by the explosive Jordan Todman into the mix, UConn is an offense that can suddenly hang with all comers. The mediocre Husky defense has suffered a few personnel losses, and their special teams play has been a considerable liability over the past several seasons. How startling is it to think back and recall that Randy Edsall and UConn used to have a reputation for winning with sterling defense and mistake-free football?
It will not be easy for Rutgers to recapture last year's magic on their home turf. UConn should be starting a significantly better passer this year. Not only has Savage regressed, but he may be too injured to play. With the team's considerable depth issues at quarterback, they will probably have to pin their hopes on a true freshman with only two quarters of game experience. If Chas Dodd falters, or the offensive line remains ineffective, it could end up being a long night for the guys in Scarlet. Still, college football season trajectories have been known to change on a dime. Just ask Cody Endres and Tim Brown if you are not convinced.
Rutgers hosts UConn this Friday night at 7:30 p.m. in Piscataway. The game will be televised live on ESPN.