PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- Rutgers didn't just win a football game Saturday, it won a whole bunch of eyeballs, too.
After a wild 21-20 win over Navy in front of 47,138 fans on homecoming weekend, the Scarlet Knights are now 5-1 and one of the biggest surprises in the country this season.
"I'm really proud of our guys, because at no point did they panic," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "They played for one another. And they found a way to have one more point on the scoreboard at the end of the day than our opponent.
"It probably won't be a highlight-reel game, but it's a W -- a W against a team that's really dangerous."
A loss to 2-3 Navy -- even a 2-3 Navy team that leads the nation in rushing and only lost by a field goal at No. 10 South Carolina last month -- would have flattened the momentum Rutgers has been building over the past few weeks.
Instead, the Scarlet Knights will carry a four-game winning streak into their game at Louisville next Friday night -- a game that will air nationally on ESPN2 and will draw a lot more attention now. After all, Rutgers received eight votes in the USA Today coaches poll last week, and should creep closer to that coveted national ranking after this win.
"No, I'm not," Rutgers wideout Mohamed Sanu said, when asked if he is surprised by Rutgers' 5-1 start. "Because I have a lot of trust in our guys, and I feel like any game could be ours. We just gotta go out and play it."
A year ago at this time, Rutgers was in a very different place, dealing with a football team's worst nightmare. On Oct. 16, 2010, in a game against Army, junior defensive tackle Eric LeGrand injured his spinal cord covering a kickoff return and was paralyzed from the neck down. The stunned Scarlet Knights subsequently lost their final six games of the season.
Now, after being picked to finish dead last in the Big East in the preseason, Rutgers is off to a 2-0 start in the conference and is displaying an in-game resiliency that was sorely lacking last season in the wake of LeGrand's injury.
That resiliency was certainly evident Saturday, as the Scarlet Knights rallied back from a 17-7 deficit midway through the third quarter. A year ago, Rutgers would have folded under such circumstances, giving up 17 unanswered points after taking an early 7-0 lead. Instead, true freshman quarterback Gary Nova, making only his second career start, led the team on back-to-back touchdown drives in the late-third and early-fourth quarters.
Then, after Navy cut the deficit to 21-20 and picked off Nova after a very poor pass deep in his territory, the Rutgers defense and special teams stepped up. The Scarlet Knights stuffed the Midshipmen on three straight running plays, and then senior Brandon Jones blocked what could have been the game-winning field goal.
"The win is all that matters in the end," Nova said, when asked about his critical mistake. "We did it for each other, we played hard, and we got the win."
There were other miscues, to be sure. Nova threw another bad interception back in the second quarter, which was returned for a touchdown. And another true freshman, running back Savon Huggins, fumbled on a third-and-goal carry at the 1-yard line.
But there were many more positive plays than negative ones. Running back Jawan Jamison had 101 yards on 22 carries. Sanu continued his stellar season, with 10 catches for 100 yards. Looking past the two picks, Nova completed 23 of 31 passes for 271 yards. And the defense held Navy, which came in averaging an astounding 366 rushing yards per game, to less than half that (162).
"We played 'em tough -- they average like 300-something [rushing yards], that looks good, but at the end of the day we don't want anyone getting 100 yards on us," said senior linebacker Khaseem Greene, who had a career-high 14 tackles on the day. "It gives us a little bit of something to work off of, something to strive better for. We got the win, but we just gotta get in the film room, take our mistakes, take things we did right, and just move forward from there."
Sounds like a player, and a team, not satisfied with what they've accomplished thus far.
Rutgers now heads on the road, always a daunting task. But its next opponent, Louisville, is 2-4, having lost three straight games after Saturday's 25-16 loss at Cincinnati. After that, Rutgers has just one more Big East game away from home -- at 3-4 UConn on Nov. 26, the last game of the regular season.
People are starting to bring up Rutgers' 2006 team -- the only other Rutgers team to start a season 2-0 in the Big East. That team finished 11-2, ranked No. 12 in the country and captured the attention of the entire New York metropolitan area along the way.
But Schiano isn't ready to make the connection -- at least not yet. "I don't know, I'm leery of comparing," Schiano said. "This team's different. This team is a special group of guys, [but] this is a different group."
Yes, it is. But it's a group that, at 5-1, has a chance to do something very special, too.
Sit back, relax and enjoy the show.