Rutgers hopes to stay 'on' after time off

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Rutgers football players got a rare treat last weekend. Coach Greg Schiano released them to go home and get away from the rigors of practice, weightlifting and film study.

"It was really refreshing to be able to sit back and relax," senior cornerback Jason McCourty said. "It was a nice little weekend."

The trick for the Scarlet Knights was to recharge during their bye week without losing the momentum they had built heading into it. After a 1-5 start, Rutgers rebounded to win two straight wins, including its best performance of the season in a 54-34 victory at Pittsburgh on Oct. 25. Can they continue that after the time off?

"I think each week is independent of itself," Schiano said. "I do think confidence can carry forward. But as far as momentum in games, it's two different teams showing up."

The Scarlet Knights have looked like two different teams at times this season. Early in the season, their offense stalled and the defense gave up too many big plays. The defense started putting it together first, holding Cincinnati and Connecticut to 10 points each and coming up with two key turnovers against Pitt.

"It was about refocusing on our fundamentals as a defense," McCourty said. "We might have been getting away from that. We made an emphasis on keeping everything in front of us and watching a lot more film.

"I think we always had faith in ourselves. But we felt it would take a bigger commitment from us, and I think we're starting to do that."

The offense finally had its breakout game at Pitt when embattled quarterback Mike Teel threw six touchdown passes. Teel was booed by his own fans at Rutgers Stadium in his last home game. He should get a warmer reception there this weekend against Syracuse.

McCourty said the team started playing better when it stopped thinking about the big picture and instead focused on each week. By doing that, the Scarlet Knights have given themselves a chance to salvage the season. With winnable home games against Syracuse, Army and Louisville left, bowl eligibility has suddenly become a viable thought around Piscataway.

Still, Schiano says little has changed about his team's outlook.

"It was never out of our reach at 1-5," Schiano said. "If you're not mathematically out of it, it's not out of your reach. They were playing good football. We just weren't winning games. It was frustrating more than anything.

"To say that there's no difference (from being 1-5 to 3-5), I wouldn't go that far. Certainly there's a difference. It's just a better feeling around the building when you're winning. But as far as work ethic and as far as preparation goes, our guys have been competing against each other each week to help prepare themselves and I have no reason to believe that won't continue this week. So that's what I mean when we talk about how it hasn't really changed."

Rutgers returns to action against an opponent that's feeling better about itself in Syracuse, which is coming off its first Big East and first FBS win of the season in Saturday's 28-21 victory over Louisville. Schiano is 3-0 against Orange coach Greg Robinson, winning those contests by an average margin of 25.7 points.