No program has a longer active bowl winning streak than Rutgers, a run it can extend by recording the third 10-win season in school history.
Those goals pale in comparison to what the Scarlet Knights nearly had at stake.
A golden opportunity to reach a BCS game went by the wayside, so they’re relegated to playing in the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando on Friday against Virginia Tech, a team just happy to be in the postseason.
Rutgers (9-3) shared the Big East crown but didn’t receive the league’s automatic BCS bid - the school has never earned one - because it blew a chance to win the outright title in the regular-season finale. Despite leading 14-3 late in the third quarter, the Scarlet Knights would lose 20-17 to Louisville on Nov. 29.
That gave the Big East’s BCS spot to the Cardinals, who will play fourth-ranked Florida in the Sugar Bowl. A big-time bowl against a perennial power would have brought more money, recognition and possible recruiting help to Rutgers, not to mention the program’s first crack at a Top 25 opponent in postseason play.
“You always feel like your heart is ripped out when you lose a game no matter what,” receiver Mark Harrison said. “It feels the same way with every loss, but (the Louisville) one had a lot on the line and we let it slip.”
The Scarlet Knights are in their seventh bowl game in eight years and have not lost one since 2005, a year before their breakout 11-2 season under former coach Greg Schiano. That’s the last time they reached double digits in wins - the only other one came in 1976.
“When you get to the 10-win mark, it separates your team and your year and puts you in a little bit of a different class,” first-year coach Kyle Flood said.
Flood was an assistant as Schiano led the Scarlet Knights to victory in their last five bowl appearances. Rutgers shares that longest current streak in the country with Mississippi State, which plays New Year’s Day in the Gator Bowl against Northwestern.
“Our track record in terms of getting ready for these bowl games is pretty good,” said Flood, the co-Big East coach of the year. “… I think the bowl season is a new season, and we’ve always approached it like that.”
Coach Frank Beamer got his alma mater back into bowl season, but barely. Virginia Tech (6-6) had to win its final two games to become eligible.
The Hokies are the sixth program in history to reach a bowl in 20 consecutive seasons, currently the country’s third-longest run behind Florida State (30) and Florida (21).
“(This team) gave everything it had down the stretch to keep this streak going,” Beamer told the school’s official website. “… If we can find a way to win this game and beat Rutgers and finish with three straight wins, that would say a lot about this team and the players we have.”
Beamer’s teams lost in BCS games the last two years after claiming the ACC’s bid, but this one finished fourth in the Coastal Division after entering the season as the favorite.
Virginia Tech, ranked as high as 13th in mid-September, will finish with its worst record since going 2-8-1 in 1992.
“For whatever reason, it just never came together for this team,” Beamer said. “We never got that consistent play.”
While the Hokies closed with back-to-back wins, Rutgers lost two straight as the ground game stumbled - 104 yards on 41 carries. All-Big East second-teamer Jawan Jamison ran for 64 yards in those games after gaining 990 through the first 10.
Sophomore Gary Nova completed less than 50 percent of his passes in each of those two defeats - that hadn’t happened in a game all season. His 2,566 yards passing were the most by a Rutgers quarterback since 2008, but 13 of his 15 interceptions came during the team’s 2-3 finish.
While Jamison and Nova had their moments, Rutgers’ star is senior linebacker Khaseem Greene. He was named Big East defensive player of the year for the second straight time after recording team highs of 125 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks and six forced fumbles.
Greene led a Rutgers defense which ranked sixth nationally in points allowed at 14.3 per game.
That unit will focus on Logan Thomas, who threw for 2,783 yards with 17 touchdowns and ran for nine scores. Virginia Tech was 0-5 this season when he had more than one interception.
The 6-foot-6, 260-pound Thomas led the rushing attack with 528 yards, marking the first year the Hokies didn’t have a player run for at least 850 since 2005.
Like the ground game, defense keyed Virginia Tech’s rise to prominence but has been a problem this season. If they don’t shut out the Scarlet Knights, the Hokies will allow their most points since 2003.
That’s also the last year they faced Rutgers, beating their former Big East rival for the 11th straight time.