Rutgers can write successful second act to '09 season

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Rutgers went from early-season disappointment to mid-season afterthought. Now, in the final quarter of year, the Scarlet Knights can define what kind of season this really is.

They're sitting at 6-2 right now, which is very respectable. But dig deeper, and you'll discover that Rutgers hasn't beaten a team with a winning record and its opponents have a combined 15-35 mark. It's a hollow 6-2, to say the least.

But the last time out brought the best win of the season, as Tim Brown's last-minute touchdown grab and go earned a 28-24 win at UConn and the possibility for good things to come.

"It could be a game that lets us have a big finish, but the only way we decide that is by playing each week," cornerback Devin McCourty said. "We can't rely on just one win to boost us for the rest of the season."

True, but Thursday night's home game against No. 24 South Florida (7:30 p.m. ESPN) could announce whether Rutgers is for real. With bottom-feeders Louisville and Syracuse remaining on the schedule, beating the Bulls could lead to at least a nine-win season. That's nothing to scoff at, regardless of the schedule.

The last two times the Scarlet Knights played on national TV, things didn't turn out so well for them. They got blasted 47-15 in the opener against Cincinnati and lost 24-17 to Pitt on Oct. 16. Those two losses pretty much eliminated them from Big East contention right away, even though some (cough, cough) thought this might be the year Greg Schiano's team broke through and won its first league title.

"We had eight guys go to the National Football League, six guys on active rosters," Schiano told reporters this week. "We're not quite at the point where we just reload six NFL players. So did I have belief we could win? Absolutely. But in the end, everybody has that belief.

"What's reality? I think our kids are doing a good job filling in for those guys that are on NFL rosters right now. Early in the year, we probably weren't quite ready to be that. I'm not sure we are now, but we're getting better."

The offense is still a work in progress behind true freshman quarterback Tom Savage, but he has done a great job not turning the ball over. The defense, meanwhile, has gotten back to its aggressive, ball-stripping ways. Rutgers leads the FBS with a plus-18 turnover margin, and its 25 takeaways are tied for fifth nationally. Some of that is skewed by inferior competition, including two FCS opponents, but it remains impressive nonetheless.

"We always emphasize turnovers, and it's been working out in our favor," linebacker Ryan D'Imperio said. "We've just been executing and going and getting the ball."

That defense and turnover margin help give the Scarlet Knights a chance even when their offense isn't churning out yards or points. That's probably the formula they'll need to use against an athletic South Florida team.

This might not be the breakthrough season in Piscataway some had hoped. But it can still be a good one.

"We can't win the Big East now, but that's out of our control," McCourty said. "The only thing we can do is go out and try to win every game from here on out."