Red October: Rutgers takes down No. 2 USF
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Just as quickly as USF stormed to the elite of college football, the Bulls were sent back to the harsh reality that has been college football in 2007.
The Bulls fell prey to the upset bug that has ravaged top-five teams all season, losing their No. 2 ranking and a shot at the national championship with a thrilling 30-27 loss to unranked Rutgers.
Three weeks ago, it was the Bulls storming the field in celebration of a home win against then No. 5 West Virginia. On Thursday, they watched as a red swarm of Rutgers fans stormed the field, soaking in a huge win on national television.
“Rutgers played a heck of a ballgame,” USF coach Jim Leavitt said. “We had the ball at the 50, down by 3, and their defense came up and played. Give them credit. We had two opportunities with the ball.”
Quarterback Matt Grothe got two chances to drive for a tying field goal in the final five minutes, getting the ball at Rutgers’ 49 with 1:33 to play. The Knights got their seventh sack, and a fourth-and-22 conversion was scuttled by a questionable offensive pass interference call against receiver Amarri Jackson. A Hail Mary pass on fourth-and-37 was intercepted by Rutgers’ Zaire Kitchen.
The loss will likely drop USF out of the top 10 and all but takes the Bulls out of the national championship picture. They now must regroup and refocus on staying in the thick of what is a wide-open Big East race.
“Our goal is to win the Big East. That’s still our goal, and it's all we're really focused on,” Leavitt said. “We took a hit tonight, that’s for sure. There’s no room. You’re probably not going to have a shot at winning the Big East with two losses. You've got a shot with one.”
USF’s defense, which had led the Bulls in their 6-0 start, couldn’t force any turnovers for most of the game and couldn’t contain Rutgers’ Ray Rice, who topped 100 yards against the Bulls for the third year in a row. Rice ran 39 times for 181 yards, and quarterback Mike Teel and receiver Tiquan Underwood hooked up for two touchdowns.
“They ran the ball on us pretty good,” cornerback Trae Williams said. “They got open on us downfield pretty good. I guess we weren’t able to stop them tonight.”
USF got another big game from Grothe, who threw for 247 yards and gained 118 rushing, though he lost 60 yards in sacks to finish with a team-high 58. He ran for one score and threw for another, but it wasn’t enough to avoid USF’s first loss as a ranked team.
Down 10 with 11:59 to play, Grothe led the Bulls on a 70-yard touchdown drive, going 3-for-3 for 47 yards. Mike Ford’s 1-yard scoring run cut the Rutgers lead to 30-27 with 9:16 to play. USF’s defense held Rutgers without a first down the rest of the way, but the offense couldn’t capitalize.
The Bulls came in to New Jersey with the national spotlight on them, ranking second in the first official BCS standings, released Sunday. USF was also ranked second in the AP poll, while Rutgers – ranked 10th just a month ago – was unranked after losses to Maryland and Cincinnati.
The game’s biggest plays turned on special teams – a Rutgers fake punt turned into a 36-yard pass play and the fake field goal for a huge touchdown in the third quarter. Rutgers muffed two punt returns and both teams had field goals blocked. USF’s Ryan Gilliam drew 15-yard personal fouls on back-to-back kickoffs in the fourth quarter, costing the Bulls valuable field position, and failed to down a punt inside the 5-yard line in the closing minutes.
The Bulls had a touchdown called back after review, ruling that linebacker Tyrone McKenzie had made an illegal forward pass in scooping the ball forward as the Bulls returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown. Instead of a 24-10 lead, the Bulls had a missed field of their own, and Rutgers scored the next 10 points for a 20-17 lead.
The Bulls now have an extra two days to prepare for another tough road game at Connecticut (5-1), which handed the Bulls a 15-10 loss in East Hartford two years ago.
“Everybody’s pretty down, but we can’t keep our heads down,” Williams said. “It’s only one loss, and we still have the rest of the season ahead of us. My feeling is we still can win the Big East championship. Obviously we didn’t get it done tonight.”