Greg Schiano actually cried when it ended.
He has coached 143 games at Rutgers, and I’m pretty sure the postgame waterworks after a victory are a career first.
But, really, can you blame him? Rutgers faced about as much adversity as you could cram into a four-hour college football game on Saturday. And still, somehow, on the strength of a walk-on kicker’s field goals at the end of regulation and in overtime, the Scarlet Knights won their third Big Ten game of the season.
Rutgers 27, Maryland 24.
Schiano: Tears of joy.
What can you say? Schiano revealed in his virtual press conference that three players lost loved ones during the week leading up to the game, including two who died from COVID-19. The team has managed to isolate itself from the coronavirus, but the pandemic still is taking its toll on everyone within the program. And, for a couple of players, it became deeply personal.
That was the biggest reason for Schiano’s tears. The head coach wanted a victory to end a difficult week — and that was before a difficult game even started.
The Scarlet Knights (3-5) lost their starting quarterback to an injury, just one of about a half-dozen starters who ended up lying on the turf during the brutal game. They dealt with an undisciplined Maryland team that had multiple dirty plays that put Rutgers players in jeopardy.
They had a fourth-quarter lead, then blew it when a third-and-19 blitz couldn’t bring down the quarterback.
They had one chance to tie it in the fourth quarter, then blew that with an illegal-motion penalty and a pass that was three yards short of the marker.
But no matter what happened, these Scarlet Knights — as they have proven time and again during Schiano’s first season back — will not quit.
Backup quarterback Artur Sitkowski, who played well in relief of Noah Vedral, led Rutgers down the field in the final minutes. Rutgers fought back to tie the game on Valentino Ambrosio’s 39-yard field goal as time expired and took the lead with an 42-yarder in overtime.
And then, with Maryland needing a field goal to keep the game going, defensive end Mike Tverdov came up with the biggest sack of the season. He dragged down Eric Najarian on a third-and-13, forcing the Terrapins to attempt a 50-yard field goal to tie and prolong the game. The attempt sailed wide left, and before it landed, the Scarlet Knights went nuts as they celebrated on the field.
And the head coach? The waterworks began.
Here are five observations from Rutgers-Maryland:
1. WINNING THE COVID WAR
Fans tuning into the Big Ten Network just before noon were greeted with breaking news that, at this point, shouldn’t surprise anyone: A half-dozen key Maryland players, including quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa and linebacker Chance Campbell, would not play because of “medical reasons.” Which is another way of saying that they were just the latest COVID-19 casualties in this college football season.
No matter what else happens this season, the biggest achievement for Rutgers — and, please, this is a good spot to knock on all of the wood in your house — is keeping the coronavirus at bay. One emergency-room doctor who roots for the Scarlet Knights called it “an amazing accomplishment,” and that seems appropriate.
Consider what else happened in the Big Ten this weekend. Ohio State-Michigan, the most anticipated game on the league calendar each season, was canceled. So was a less-heralded rivalry game, Purdue-Indiana, when both teams had COVID issues. Minnesota played Nebraska without 33 players because of the virus and other injuries. For Rutgers to get this far without an issue, everyone — from Schiano to the walk-ons — should take a bow.
2. VEDRAL’S ROUGH DAY
If you’re wondering what, exactly, it will take for Rutgers to bench quarterback Noah Vedral and replace him with Artur Sitkowski, I think we have our answer: an injury. And that’s it.
The Nebraska transfer’s numbers at halftime were downright dreadful: 6-of-15 passing for 27 yards with two fumbles, both that Rutgers offensive lineman Brendan Bordner recovered to save the offense from a bigger disaster. In fairness, the first one was hardly Vedral’s fault — he was leveled from his blindside after left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal whiffed on a block.
Vedral started the second half, and on the Scarlet Knights’ first possession, he led them on an 84-yard touchdown drive thanks, in part, to his 25-yard run on a quarterback draw. But the play-after-play battering and a possible cheap shot KO’d him in the third quarter when, at the end of the run, Maryland defensive lineman Ami Finau twisted Vedral’s ankle after the play was over. Vedral limped off the field, and Sitkowski replaced him.
3. MORE MELTON MAGIC
It finally looked like Rutgers had run too many trick plays. Offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson dialed up a few in the first half and, each time, Maryland quickly snuffed them out. Then, early in the third quarter, the offensive coordinator finally hit pay dirt with a reverse.
Wide receiver Bo Melton took a reverse pitch from running back Isaih Pacheco, turned the corner and was off to the races. No Maryland defender laid a hand on him as he ran 44 yards, picking up a nice block from left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal.
Then, in the fourth quarter, Melton took a lateral from Sitkowski and leaped over the goal line after outracing the Maryland defense again. The touchdown gave the Scarlet Knights a 21-17 lead, and while Melton had a couple drops in the passing game, Gleeson continues to find a way to get the ball in his hands with room to run. It’s the best thing this offense has going for it now.
4. CLUTCH KICKING
I’ll admit it: When Valentino Ambrosio missed a 35-yard field-goal attempt with 6:43 remaining in the second quarter, costing the Scarlet Knights a chance to take a 3-0 lead, I was wondering how a walk-on from the soccer team won the job.
It was fair to ask: What happened to Justin Davidovicz? The place-kicker had hit 20 of 26 career attempts, including a 52-yarder that was the longest in the Big Ten last season, before losing the job this offseason. Davidovicz continued to handle kickoff duties (or at least he did until Guy Fava assumed the role last week), but Schiano said Ambrosio — a good kicker in high school who played for the Rutgers soccer team — simply won the place-kicking job in practice.
But give Ambrosio credit. In a difficult situation with time running down in the fourth quarter, Ambrosio proved his mental toughness. He split the uprights to force overtime and was perfect again in overtime, but finding stability with place-kicking still has to be an offseason priority.
5. GO BOWLING? IT’S THE BIG QUESTION
Here are a few off-the-field thoughts as this weird college football season ends:
a. Boston College passed up an opportunity to play in a bowl game, and given the priority that coaches place on those games — for their resumes and the additional practice — that tells you all you need to know about the grind of the 2020 season. If the players are voting for it to end, you know how hard it’s been.
b. Given the way Schiano has talked about the sacrifices his players have made this season because of the coronavirus, I wonder if he would reach the same conclusion if faced with the decision. This was his answer recently to the bowl question:
“I have been so busy that I haven’t given that any thought. That’s not a cop out — I literally haven’t given that any thought. I should’ve thought of it. But I have not thought of it because my days … I thought being a head coach was a challenging job the first go-around (but) in this COVID mess, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
c. One difference for Rutgers when compared to Boston College: the length of the layoff. The Eagles finished their season on Dec. 5 and would have had to wait three weeks for the bowl. The Scarlet Knights play their “bonus” game on Dec. 19 and the lower-tier Big Ten bowls start on Dec. 26, so would adding one week to the season be seen as such a sacrifice?
d. Give Indiana a ton of credit for taking a classy approach to the league’s decision to change its rules and put Ohio State into the championship game. You wonder if the Buckeyes, so accustomed to every decision working out in their favor, would have been as gracious.
e. The Big Ten needs to look at this play. The twist seems intentional and dirty, and clearly, Vedral paid the price.
f. Mike Locksley’s teams have a lot of talent, but discipline certainly isn’t their strength. How many times did the Terrapins shoot themselves in the foot with a stupid penalty? They were flagged for having 12 men on the field on a crucial third-down stop in the fourth quarter.
g. I lost count of how many Rutgers players limped off the field in this game. It is abundantly clear that the wear and tear of playing eight consecutive weekends against conference foes is catching up with the Scarlet Knights.
h. No Matt Millen? Christmas came early!
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Steve Politi may be reached at email@example.com.