College football preview: Time to climb, Scarlet Knights can make a major statement by winning four or more
Thursday, August 29, 2002
BY JERRY IZENBERG
It is the only pecking order college football knows when it comes to resurrection. There are no shortcuts, no magic formulas, no heaven-sent solutions. You go through the three steps of redemption or your program stays forever in 100-yard limbo.
The road map goes like this:
So here is the Rutgers football team. It has won one, whole, entire Big East football game in 21 tries in the past three years. In 11 years of conference play it is 15-58-1. It hasn't had a winning season since 1992. Last year, it led the nation in turnovers allowed and lost each of its seven Big East games by an average margin of 41.3 points.
To compound the torture, the Scarlet Knights won only two games overall last year--against 3-8 Buffalo and winless Navy. Incredibly they lost at home to both UConn, which had just staggered onto the Division 1-A drawing board, and Cal, which had been 0-10 until it came 3,000 miles east to bathe in the healing waters of Piscataway.
It is not piling on, therefore, to say without fear of contradiction that the Rutgers football team enters the preseason stretch under house arrest in "Nobodyville." So what is it that this team was struggling to do during the heat of a blazing summer at a time when only mad dogs, Englishmen and Rutgers football players go out in the noonday sun?
It has been trying to morph into an upstart.
Or as they used to say around Col. Henry Rutgers' old farm after Rutgers lost the rematch to Princeton in 1869:
"It doesn't matter if you win or lose, but you damned sure better start winning."
Cynics are quick to point out that since there were only two teams that year, it marked the first and last time Rutgers got a piece of the national championship.
Optimists say that nothing is forever and didn't the band look swell out there.
Realists, well, realists are the voice of truth. They say "kick it off' and "show us what you got -- particularly when you head into game 4."
All through spring football and a late summer when the temperature and the practices were both straight out of Devil's Island, Greg Schiano and his staff played with the numbers and prayed for a favoring wind at their backs ... keep the bodies whole ... keep them eligible ... keep their attention ... keep the faith.
Just as Branch Rickey believed that luck is the residue of design, Schiano believes that confidence is the residue of making plays. Make enough of them and stay even going into the fourth quarter and you win. With winning comes confidence and with confidence comes more winning.
But, in the words of Vince Lombardi, football is not a contact sport. It's a hitting sport. For too long now Rutgers has been the hit rather than the hitter. It remains short on the volume of blue-chippers necessary to create the depth that wins, that moves the cycle from nobody to upstart and on to competitor.
That will take even more time and the coach knows it. It is his belief that to make that journey, you need to weave a 100-yard tapestry wherein a lot of little problems get solved, and when you put those clusters together, you finally create enough heat to melt the big ones.
Last year this was a football team that specialized in three-and-out on offense ... that turned the football over faster than a web-fingered juggler ... that left its quarterback naked in the onrushing jaws of defenses that feasted on an offensive line that seemed to melt under their charge like butter on a hot griddle.
Is this group with experience better than that offensive line?
It could be. It should be. But how do you measure the progress. The schedule should have been put together by a knockdown timekeeper ... Notre Dame and Tennessee on the road ... Miami ... Virginia Tech ... five other Big East teams, with only Temple counted as an even matchup going into the season.
The first three -- Villanova, Buffalo and Army -- are supposed to make this team 3-0 before trouble hits River City. But then last year, UConn and Cal were supposed to be cheesecake and Temple was supposed to be a tossup. And as Schiano has told the troops, you don't just win by lining up -- even with these three.
So where is it headed?
Is Rutgers better overall? All things being relative -- probably.
Does that mean it can get itself up to .500? Not without the aid of a field of garlic cloves, the feet of 100,000 rabbits and an arsenal of silver bullets.
So what must it do to move away from "nobody" and toward "upstart"
For openers, it must end the embarrassment of blowouts -- even against teams it couldn't beat if its defense were armed with a chain, mace and trident. Whether it's Pitt or West Virginia or even the monsters of Miami and Virginia Tech ... the proof will come in the margin.
As for winning, understand this. Three is expected, four is a bonus, five is popcorn and toy balloons.
But how do you get past three?
Slowly, hopefully and with terrifically good luck.
Will they be better?
Measure the first downs, the penalties, the turnovers. Then measure the points on both sides of the board.
In the race to "upstart" and then to eventual "contender," little things will mean an awful lot.
Other folks' small victories can be big ones for this team. Whether they, indeed, come remains to be seen.
Jerry Izenberg appears regularly in The Star-Ledger.
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