Rutgers 31, Navy 21
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP)— Rutgers’ fifth-year senior Ryan Neill knew how much he wanted a winning season and shot at a bowl. The defensive end had no idea how bad the craving was among the Scarlet Knights’ followers who have been around much longer than him.
“The fans who have been die-hard Rutgers fans for so long, were coming up and hugging me, saying ‘Thank you so much,”’ said Neill after Rutgers’ 31-21 victory over Navy on Saturday clinched the Scarlet Knights first winning season since 1992. “I really didn’t realize until that moment out there, that wow, people have just been dying for this moment.”
Brian Leonard and Ray Rice each ran for two touchdowns as Rutgers started the season 6-2 for the first time since 1979. The Knights snapped a four-game winning streak by Navy (4-3).
When the game ended and the Scarlett Knights became bowl-eligible, many in the sellout crowd of 41,716, the second largest in Rutgers Stadium history, stormed the field to celebrate.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, savoring his first winning season in five years as a head coach, said he stood on the Navy sideline and just soaked it all in. His players were right in the middle of it.
“It was kind of crazy,” quarterback Ryan Hart said. “I’m getting stepped on, people were grabbing me, it was pretty special. It was the best stepped-on feeling ever.”
Hart, who lost his starting job to Mike Teel two games ago but got it back this week due to Teel’s shoulder injury, completed 18 of 21 for 221 yards. Many of his completions were screens to Leonard, who had seven catches for 53 yards.
“Any time you have good running backs and you can pound the ball, it creeps up that defense,” Navy linebacker David Mahoney said. “That play action works very well, and that’s what happened with Hart.”
Rice ran for 80 yards and Leonard added 58, while Sean Tucker caught four passes for 80 yards. Tres Moses had four catches for 54 yards and became Rutgers’ all-time leader in receiving yardage.
Reggie Campbell had 69 of Navy’s 207 yards rushing, which was less than half the total the Middies had in last year’s 54-21 over Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights kept Navy’s offensive chances limited by holding a 35:22 to 24:38 time of possession.
Clinging to a 24-21 lead, Rutgers put together a 62-yard drive that resulted in Rice’s 2-yard touchdown run with 5:26 remaining. Hart was 3-for-3 for 56 yards on the drive, including a 16-yard completion to Leonard on a third-and-9 play.
“When you have a guy with experience, he doesn’t get rattled,” Schiano said. “He had great composure, and he’s gotten away from the peaks and valleys.”
After Rice’s run, Rutgers held Navy on its next series, than crushed any hope the Middies had when Devraun Thompson intercepted Lamar Owens’ pass with 1:32 remaining.
Trailing 21-7, Navy took the second-half kickoff and produced a 15-play, 74-yard drive that resulted in a 9-yard scoring run by Karlos Whittaker. It was the sixth straight game Whittaker scored a touchdown.
The Knights came back with an 18-yard field goal from Jeremy Ito, although Rutgers hoped for more after getting a first-and-goal at the 2.
Navy then mounted another long scoring drive, as Owens’ 9-yard touchdown pass to Marco Nelson capped a 65-yard, 10-play possession. But Rutgers scored its final TD to put it away.
There was some controversy before the final touchdown. On second down, Hart’s pass to Brian Leonard was deflected by Tyler Tidwell, then Leonard, and looked like it may have been intercepted by Jake Biles. The refs ruled an incompletion and the ruling stood after a video review.
“I felt like I had the ball the whole time,” Biles said. “But it was getting juggled around. It’s hard to tell what kind of angle they had upstairs. From where I was, I had it in my hands.”
Added Leonard: “It was more like a bobble around. I had it, he had it, we both had it. It could have went either way. It could have been touchdown, it could have been an interception.”
Rutgers took a 14-0 lead on Leonard’s touchdown runs of 7 yards and 1 yard. The first score was set up by Ronnie Girault’s interception, marking the fifth time this year Navy was intercepted on its first possession.
After Leonard’s second score, Navy struck quickly on a career-long 60-yard touchdown run by Campbell. The Knights then drove to the Middies 4, before Ito missed a 32-yard field goal.
Navy’s first play after the miss was Trey Hines’ fumble that Girault recovered at the Middies 30. Seven plays later, Rice scored on a 3-yard run and Rutgers had a 21-7 halftime lead.