The Rutgers Scarlet Knights began the 2011 season with low expectations following a 4-8 campaign that ended in a a six-game losing streak. Rutgers halted its losing skid by routing FCS powder puff North Carolina Central, 48-0. It was the Scarlet Knights’ largest shutout win in a season opener since 1918.
However, it meant nothing considering Rutgers also shutout Norfolk State 31-0 in their 2010 season opener. Rutgers suffered their first setback of the season in the following week against North Carolina. Sophomore speedster Giovani Bernard gained 81 yards and two touchdowns while Rutgers leading rusher, DeAntwan Williams, could only muster 15 yards in nine carries. As a unit, North Carolina’s offense outgained Rutgers on the ground 132 yards to one. The Scarlet Knights scored a touchdown to pull within two with 10:40 remaining but were unable to start another scoring drive. The Scarlet Knights ultimately suffered its first loss, 24-22.
Against Ohio, Rutgers overpowered the undefeated Ohio Bobcats in a 38-26, led by junior receiver Mohamed Sanu’s record-setting day. Sanu caught a school-record 16 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns.
Rutgers faced its biggest challenge in the Big East opener on the road at the Carrier Dome against the Syracuse Orangemen. Trailing 13-6 with time winding down in regulation, the Rutgers gambled on a fourth-and-nine from the Syracuse 33-yard line. Freshman backup Gary Nova, who replaced junior starter Chas Dodd, hit a falling receiver for a 13-yard gain. Rutgers tied the score at 13 on a 3-yard touchdown pass to Sanu with 2:09 left. After kicking a 13-yard field goal in the second overtime, cornerback Edmond Laryea, who replaced 2011 Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Khaseem Greene, forced a Syracuse fumble that ended the game.
After a week of debate over who would start against Pittsburgh, the Scarlet Knights chose Nova, who de-committed from Pitt as a high school senior. Nova threw for 174 yards and two touchdowns en route to a convincing 34-10 win. The next week, Rutgers needed a blocked field goal with fewer than five minutes remaining to survive Navy 21-20.
However, the offense was unable to muster any offense as they scored just two touchdowns in a 14-16 loss to Louisville. The offense returned one week later against 25th ranked West Virginia at home. However, the defense was unable to halt Geno Smith and the Mountaineers’ offense. After trailing 21-31 at halftime, the Mountaineers scored 20 unanswered points and walked away with a 41-31 win. Despite the loss to West Virginia, the most memorable part of the season came during the pre-game when former defensive lineman Eric Legrand, who was paralyzed from the neck down, during a game last October led the team out onto the snow-covered field. Legrand directed his wheelchair as head coach Greg Schiano walked beside him and the team followed. The moment was later voted Sports Illustrated's Moment of the Year and Legrand leading the team out onto the field was placed on the magazine's cover.
It was the last game Rutgers would lose before staging a three-game November winning streak. The Scarlet Knights began their streak by defeating South Florida 20-17. After Chas Dodd was brought in to replace ineffective starter, Gary Nova at the start of the fourth quarter, Dodd threw a game-tying 34-yard touchdown pass with 1:08 remaining. On the final play of regulation, South Florida missed a kick that would have won the game. In the first overtime, Rutgers cornerback Duron Harmon intercepted a South Florida pass that allowed Rutgers to seal the win with a field goal of their own. The win also gave Rutgers bowl-eligibility.
The Scarlet Knights outscored Army and Cincinnati 47-15 and unexpectedly fought their way back into the Big East title race. A win against Connecticut would give them a share of their first Big East championship and a shot a BCS championship bid. However, the Huskies defeated the Scarlet Knights and ending their bid in an anticlimactic 40-22 win.
The quarterback carousel continued against Connecticut as Nova threw for 298 yards in the fourth quarter in relief of Dodd. Brandon Coleman, who caught two fourth quarter touchdowns, including a 92-yarder finished with a team-high 223 yards. Sanu also caught nine balls for 133 yards.
Although, playing in nearby Yankee Stadium is a nice consolation prize, it will be interesting to witness how the Scarlet Knights respond after missing out on their shot at a Big East title and a BCS bowl game. Even though preparing for a bowl game in New York City isn’t quite as pleasant as preparing for the Orange Bowl in South Florida, the Scarlet Knights have plenty to be proud of. Their 8-4 season surpassed the expectations most had for the team following their disastrous 2010 campaign.