PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- On the verge of making history, Rutgers let it all slip away.
With its first Big East championship and a first-ever BCS bowl bid on the line, the Scarlet Knights blew a 14-3 halftime lead and lost to Louisville on Thursday, 20-17.
Rutgers (9-3, 5-2 Big East) now has to settle for sharing the conference title with Louisville, Syracuse, and possibly Cincinnati. But the coveted BCS bid, which will be determined by the final BCS standings, will almost certainly go to the Cardinals.
“I think we have a football team right now that’s hurting,” said Rutgers coach Kyle Flood. “They poured their lives into this season, and they fought extremely hard today.
“Unfortunately we didn’t do it well enough. That’s the reality of today. But the effort and the emotion that was poured into that game -- right now their hearts are ripped out.”
For much of the evening, it looked like Rutgers’ night, in front of a sellout home crowd of 52,798. The Scarlet Knights jumped in front thanks to two long touchdown passes by sophomore quarterback Gary Nova. The first, on Rutgers’ very first offensive play, went for 85 yards to wideout Brandon Coleman. The second totaled 68 yards, to fellow wide receiver Mark Harrison.
But the game turned dramatically in the final minute of the third quarter, when Louisville scored a pair of touchdowns in just 16 seconds.
First, the Cardinals capped off a 90-yard drive with a 14-yard TD pass from Teddy Bridgewater to Jeremy Wright. Rutgers’ Jeremy Deering fumbled the ensuing kickoff, Louisville recovered, and two plays later the Cardinals were back in the end zone, courtesy of a 20-yard connection between Bridgewater and DeVante Parker.
“We were never able to really swing the momentum back, and that’s my job, so I take responsibility for that,” Flood said.
Bridgewater completed 20 of 28 passes for 263 yards, despite playing with a broken wrist in his non-throwing hand and a sprained ankle. He didn’t start the game, and Louisville coach Charlie Strong wasn’t even sure he would play.
“They have a tremendous playmaker at the quarterback position,” said Flood. “And at the end of the game, and even during the game, he made some great plays, and we just weren’t able to match.”
Trailing 20-17 with less than two minutes left, Rutgers had the ball, with a chance to tie or win the game. But on first-and-10 from their own 48, Nova and Coleman had a miscommunication, resulting in a pass lofted down the right sideline with no Scarlet Knight in sight.
Louisville cornerback Terell Floyd dived to haul in the ball, effectively ending the game, in stunning fashion.
“That was my fault,” said a red-eyed Nova in a somber Rutgers locker room. “That’s all that needs to be said.”
A year ago, Rutgers had a chance to clinch a share of the Big East title for the very first time in the final game of the regular season. But the Scarlet Knights were routed at UConn, 40-22.
This loss is even more disappointing, with a likely spot in the Orange or Sugar Bowl at stake -- an opportunity to play a powerhouse program, in the national spotlight.
The setup couldn’t have been better Thursday -- playing at home, against a team with a banged-up QB. The New York City sports radio airwaves were buzzing about college football for a change. And the Empire State Building was lit red for the occasion.
But the Scarlet Knights came up short one more time.
“We had an opportunity here,” said senior D-lineman Scott Vallone. “It just stinks that it didn’t turn out our way.”
Nine days ago, Rutgers announced a move from the Big East to the Big Ten, beginning in 2014. There are exciting days ahead in Piscataway.
But that doesn’t erase the sting of the most disappointing loss in school history.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” said Coleman. “This one hurts.”