Rutgers bends but doesn't break in first tough test
The Scarlet Knights used Ray Rice's 202-yard effort and Brian Leonard's versatility to improve to 5-0 for the first time since 1976, writes Mark Schlabach.
TAMPA, Fla. -- During the past two seasons, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano has notched a trifecta that few thought the State University of New Jersey would ever achieve in football.
The Scarlet Knights finished 7-5 in 2005, their first winning record since 1992, and made the school's first bowl appearance in 27 seasons. Then this week, with Rutgers off to its first 4-0 start since 1980, it cracked the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in three decades.
The No. 23 Scarlet Knights notched another impressive milestone Friday night, winning their first game in the state of Florida in nine tries with a 22-20 victory over South Florida in their Big East Conference opener at Raymond James Stadium.
Rutgers' fifth consecutive victory, which came in front of a sparse crowd of 32,493, showed it probably isn't yet ready to compete with No. 4 West Virginia or No. 8 Louisville for the Big East title.
The Scarlet Knights won only after cornerback Jason McCourty ripped a two-point conversion pass out of South Florida receiver Amp Hill's hands with 15 seconds to go, a play that would have tied the game and probably forced overtime.
The Bulls recovered an onside kick with 12 seconds left, but officials reviewed the play and ruled South Florida cornerback Mike Jenkins caught the football before it went the required 10 yards.
Rutgers never had to run another play and escaped with a victory that was, at times, unsightly.
In the final 2:32, the Scarlet Knights (5-0, 1-0 Big East) had a field goal blocked and committed a pair of 15-yard penalties that put the Bulls in position to tie the game. Then they let South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe throw two touchdown passes (the first was nullified by a block in the back) on blown coverages .
But in the end, Schiano was relieved to move to 5-0 after Rutgers played a game as a nationally ranked team for the first time since the No. 19 Scarlet Knights beat Colgate 17-9 on Nov. 18, 1976.
It can be a lot of fun when you have senior Brian Leonard and sophomore Ray Rice playing in the same backfield. With that back-breaking duo, Rutgers might be poised to accomplish more this season than it has ever done before.
Rice, a 5-foot-9, 195-pounder from New Rochelle, N.Y., might very well throw himself into the Heisman Trophy race. He came into Friday night's game ranked fourth in Division I-A in rushing, and ran for 202 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries against the Bulls.
It was Rice's seventh consecutive game with 100 rushing yards or more and his second 200-yard performance of the season (he had 201 in the season-opening, 21-16 win at North Carolina).
"Ray's a special kid," Schiano said. "He runs so hard and delivers so much punishment that you worry about him. I do. But he's trained for this. A lot of it's God-given talent, but it's also a lot of work."
At least Schiano knows he has an insurance plan that would make any rival coach envious.
Leonard, a 6-2, 235-pound workhorse from Gouverneur, N.Y., returned for his senior year after running for 2,300 yards in his first three seasons.
Going into the South Florida game, only two other active Division I-A players had more than his 610 career rushing attempts, and only Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe had scored more touchdowns than Leonard's 42.
During the preseason, Rutgers played a promotional video showing Leonard's highlights on an large videoboard at Times Square in New York to kick off his Heisman Trophy campaign.
Then Schiano asked the senior to become more of a traditional fullback, opening holes for Rice and doing the dirty work.
"Fullbacks don't win the Heisman Trophy," said Leonard, who ran eight times for 30 yards and caught three passes for 16 yards against the Bulls (3-2, 0-1 Big East). "That's not realistic."
Realistically, how many other running backs with such accolades would agree to hand the football off to a younger player? Without even kicking and screaming?
"Brian's a special young man," Schiano said. "He just wants to win and he loves this team. He thinks what we're doing is what's best for this football team. That's why he came back -- he wants to win."
That's exactly what the Scarlet Knights have done so far this season. Rice has already run for 806 yards and scored 11 touchdowns, after gaining 1,120 yards and scoring five times as a freshman. Now, Rutgers is beginning to tout Rice for the Heisman Trophy.
"That's what's special about this team," Rice said. "We don't have selfish guys, especially Brian. He could have come back and said, 'No, this is my year.' But he didn't come back thinking about the Heisman. He came back wanting to win championships."
Against the Bulls, Rice carried eight times on the game's opening possession and scored on a 3-yard run. He had 86 yards at halftime.
"You look at those long runs Ray was making tonight, and Brian was out in front of him making blocks," Schiano said.
Rutgers needed both of its running backs against the Bulls. After the Scarlet Knights fell behind 14-10 at halftime, junior Jeremy Ito kicked a 40-yard field goal to cut South Florida's lead to 14-13 with 8½ minutes left in the third.
With about two minutes to go in the third, safety Ron Girault intercepted an overthrown pass and returned it 25 yards to the Bulls' 31. Rice carried five times in the ensuing drive, and Leonard ran twice.
Rice ran for a 7-yard touchdown, but the Scarlet Knights failed to convert a two-point conversion pass, leaving them with a 19-14 lead. Ito added a career-long 53-yard field goal to make it 22-14 with 7:02 to play.
Rutgers seemed to be more than in control, especially after Bulls quarterback Matt Grothe lost a fumble with about 5½ minutes left. Rice broke off a 44-yard run on the next play and ran two more times. Then the Bulls blocked the field goal attempt before Rutgers held on.
Through it all, Rice never seemed to tire. He has run at least 23 times in each of the first five games, often between the tackles, where he takes more of a pounding.
"I get used to it now," Rice said. "It feels great. With that big line up front, I'm just getting hit by safeties. I can take that. They're not as fierce as linebackers."
Leonard said Rice is just hitting the toughest part of the season.
"This is the Big East," Leonard said. "We mixed it up a little today. Ray ran the football, and I ran it some. It will keep happening like that. I remember how sore my body was running it 30 times a game."
Leonard carried the football only 25 times in the first four games. But Schiano has found other ways to use him -- the senior has extraordinary hands for a fullback and maintains his balance better than most players his size.
"I think that's one of my strengths -- catching the football," Leonard said. "I think I fool people with my speed. I don't think they think I'm as fast and they take bad angles."
Even after moving to a position in which he doesn't carry the football as much, some NFL draft analysts believe he could still be selected in the first round next year.
"Ray is a great back, and Brian is a great back," Schiano said. "We've got two great backs."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.