The Rutgers Scarlet Knights were 30 minutes away from closing out a Big East Conference championship Thursday night at High Point Solutions Stadium, but they couldn't overcome its own mental lapses and the magical play of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in a 20-17 loss.
Rutgers (9-3, 5-2 Big East) did earn the program's first share of the Big East title with Louisville (10-2, 5-2), the Syracuse Orange (9-3, 5-2) and possibly the Cincinnati Bearcats (8-3, 4-2), who need a win Saturday against the South Florida Bulls.
But there are a lot of broken hearts in Piscataway, NJ Friday morning, as the team will more than likely not earn the league's automatic BCS bowl berth. That honor should go to Louisville, which is expected to be ranked higher than both Rutgers and Syracuse in Sunday's release of the BCS rankings - the tiebreaker in a three- or four-way tie a top of the Big East standings when head-to-head match-ups are tied.
Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood spoke about the team's missed opportunity in his postgame press conference.
"Winning the first half doesn't guarantee that you're going to win the game. We were certainly pleased to be in at halftime with that score. I think the missed opportunity for us was that we didn't play clean enough football for 60 minutes to win the football game."
The biggest missed opportunity came with about nine minutes to go in the third quarter and Rutgers leading Louisville, 14-3.
The Scarlet Knights, looking to put the game on ice, ran a fake field goal to perfection and scored a would-be touchdown that would have pushed their lead to 20-3. However, the play took so long to develop the referees were forced to call an illegal man down field penalty, which erased the score and forced Rutgers to punt.
14 plays later, Louisville scored a touchdown and cut the deficit to 14-10 with 49 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, Scarlet Knights' returner Jeremy Deering was stripped of the ball, which was recovered by Louisville at the Rutgers' 20 yard-line.
On the game's very next play, Bridgewater connected with sophomore wide receiver DeVante Parker on a go-ahead touchdown.
In a 16-second span, Louisville went from possibly trailing by 17 points to taking a 17-14 lead entering the fourth quarter.
After the game, Flood said the momentum swing was the most critical point in the game.
"I felt like the critical, critical kind of swinging point in the game, we fake a field goal for a touchdown. It gets called back for a penalty. They end up driving for a touchdown. We have a fumble on a kickoff return. It's kind of a 21-point swing in a very short amount of time, and we weren't ever able to really swing the momentum back, and that's my job. "
Despite being punched in the mouth, Rutgers had a good chance to regain the lead on its next possession, but, senior wide receiver Tim Wright could not bring in a possible touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Gary Nova.
The drop led to another Rutgers' punt, but its defense helped its offense out by making a play - an interception of Bridgewater that setup a game-tying field goal by Scarlet Knight kicker Nick Borgese with 7:48 remaining in the game.
After another defense stop, the Scarlet Knights' offense, again, let a big play chance slip away when Wright couldn't handle another accurate pass from Nova and the ball deflected into the hands of Louisville linebacker James Burgess.
Five plays later, Louisville kicker John Wallace nailed the game-winning field goal from 29 yards out.
Rutgers had under two minutes to drive into field goal rage (approximately 55 yards), but four plays into its final possession Nova had some miscommunication with his targeted wide receiver, which cut his route off short instead of running a fly like the signal caller thought he would, and the ball was intercepted by Louisville.
The Cardinals ended the game by taking a knee.
Flood said the difference in the game was big plays.
I couldn't be prouder of the players and the effort they showed tonight. We made some tremendous plays on offense, big plays which, when you look at it at the end of the game, you see the time of possession skewed in a tremendous way.
Rutgers will now wait for a bowl invitation, which will more than likely come Sunday night or early next week after all the college football conference championship games are final.
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