Rutgers 19, Michigan St. 14
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP)—After years of being one of college football’s worst teams, Rutgers may finally be for real.
Freshman Jeremy Ito kicked four field goals and Ryan Neill scored on a 31-yard interception return to lead the improving Scarlet Knights to a 19-14 victory over Michigan State on Saturday.
The win was coach Greg Schiano’s ninth since coming to the birthplace of college football in December 2000, but this one has the potential to propel the Scarlet Knights to their first winning season since 1992.
“The state of New Jersey wants something to be proud of, and I believe Rutgers football will be it,” Schiano said.
After running out the clock, Rutgers players jumped for joy and hundreds of fan in the stadium-record crowd of 42,612—which included Rutgers alumnus and James Gandolfini, star of the HBO series “The Sopranos”—joined the celebration.
“I can’t even describe the feeling. It’s been a long time coming,” Rutgers receiver and captain Tres Moses said. “I have never felt like this in my whole life. I didn’t know how to react at first. I just dropped on my knees and started praying.”
Michigan State, which went to the Alamo Bowl last year in John L. Smith’s first season as coach, made Rutgers sweat out the final minutes, driving to the Scarlet Knights’ 25 with less than two minutes to play.
Damon Dowdell missed an open Jerramy Scott in the end zone on third down and Eric Knott was tackled short of a first down on a screen pass on fourth down.
Dowdell, who completed 22 of 39 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns, said he had a lineman in his face and never saw Neill on the interception. He was more annoyed at missing Scott on the final drive.
“You have to make those throws,” Dowdell said. “This is the big leagues.”
Ito converted from 24, 47, 23 and 42 yards in attempting a school-record seven field goals, with the first five tries coming on the Scarlet Knights’ first five possessions.
Rutgers, which has only played in one bowl game, got into Michigan State territory on 10 of 14 possessions.
Neill, a defensive end who missed all of last season with a knee injury, gave the Scarlet Knights a 16-7 lead with 5:10 left in the third quarter after stepping in front of a screen pass.
“All summer we’ve known we’re for real,” Neill said. “We’ve tried to stay humble and focus on this first game. It paid out, all the hard work.”
Dowdell, who beat out Stephen Reaves and Drew Stanton for the job of replacing Jeff Smoker as the Spartans’ quarterback, threw touchdown passes of 9 yards to Matt Trannon in the second quarter and 54 yards to Knott.
The pass to a wide-open Knott cut the Scarlet Knights’ lead to 19-14 with 12:41 left to play.
Despite outgaining Michigan State 273-159 and holding the ball more than twice as long as the Spartans in the first half, Rutgers trailed 7-6 at halftime.
“We were ahead at halftime and I had no idea how that happened,” said Smith, who refused to say who his starting quarterback will be next week against Central Michigan.
Ito helped the Spartans stay close. He missed a 29-yarder on the opening series after Brian Leonard (25 rushes for 150 yards) opened the game with a 56-yard run. He also was considerably short on a 56-yard attempt on the next possession.
Ito finally converted from 23 yards to give Rutgers a 3-0 lead with 14:08 left in the second quarter, but then had a 24-yarder blocked on the next possession.
The Spartans scored after the block. A 15-yard face mask penalty against William Beckford and a 46-yard run by Jason Teague set up the score. Cornerback Eddie Grimes missed the tackle on Trannon at the line of scrimmage on the pass.
Ito, who added his 47-yarder with 5:08 left in the second quarter, gave Rutgers a 9-7 lead with a 23-yarder with 9:34 left in the third quarter. After Neill’s touchdown, he added a 42-yarder.
“I only tried 10 my senior year in high school, so seven in one game, wow,” Ito said. “But this is exactly why I came here, that feeling we had when time ran off the clock. There is nothing like it.”
Rutgers is hoping it stays like that all season.