Friday, November 30, 2012

R: The Scarlet Letter

In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter.  The novel tells of Hester Prynne, a woman in 1640s Boston, who is shamed by Puritan society because she conceived a child out of wedlock.  They forced her to wear a scarlet letter A, for Adulteress, on her clothes.  And yet she refuses to reveal the name of the man with whom she has consorted.  It takes 7 years for a respected but by then deathly ill minister to confess.  Her charity and her willingness to bear the town's scorn eventually turns the people around, and when she eventually dies, knowing that her daughter has grown to marry a European aristocrat and establish her own family, Hester is buried beside the man she truly loved.

In 1869, Rutgers College -- now a part of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey -- played what is recognized as the first college football game, defeating nearby rival Princeton, 6-4 under the scoring system of the day.  To stand out to each other, the Rutgers players wore scarlet scarves tired around their heads, in the style of turbans, thus inventing "school colors."

In 1961, Rutgers went undefeated, 9-0.  But they were not Conference Champions, as they were not in a conference.  Had there been a Big East Conference at that time, they probably would have been defeated by the Syracuse team led by Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis.  Instead, they were ranked 15th in the final Associated Press (AP) poll, and did not receive a bowl invitation.

In 1976, Rutgers went undefeated, 12-0.  But they were not Conference Champions, as they were not in a conference.  Had there been a Big East Conference at that time, they almost certainly would have been defeated by the Pittsburgh team led by Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett, which roared to a National Championship.  Instead, they were ranked 17th in the final Associated Press (AP) poll, and did not receive a bowl invitation.

In 1978, Rutgers invented its own bowl, the Garden State Bowl, and played Arizona State at the Meadowlands, and lost.  They didn't go to another bowl until 2005, the Insight.com Bowl in Phoenix, and again lost to Arizona State.

Starting in 2005, they have received 7 bowl bids in 8 years (presuming they get one for this season, which they should, at 9-3 and Co-Champions of their league), winning 5 of the first 6 with the 7th pending.

And, last Saturday, despite losing at Pittsburgh, Rutgers backed into at least a share of their first-ever Conference Championship, when Louisville lost to Connecticut.

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But, last night, Rutgers and Louisville played at Rutgers Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey for the undisputed Conference title.  A full house of 52,798 attended, most of them wearing scarlet red.

But the Scarlet Knights came out in all-black uniforms, except for the silver helmets with the scarlet Rs on them.

Rutgers scored on its first possession, as Gary Nova threw an 85-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Coleman.  Louisville's John Wallace kicked a field goal in the 2nd quarter after the RU defense prevented a touchdown, and RU struck back a minute later, as Nova threw a 68-yard touchdown pass to John Wallace.

Rutgers appeared to have made it 21-3 in the 3rd quarter, when a fake field goal became a touchdown pass from kickholder J.T. Tartacoff to D.C. Jefferson.  But the referee flagged Rutgers for an ineligible receiver downfield.  Not Jefferson, the man who actually caught the pass.

It would have been an 18-point lead, and Rutgers would surely have held on and become undisputed Big East Champions.

Still, with 16 minutes to go -- 1 minute in the 3rd quarter and the entire 4th quarter -- Rutgers had an 11-point lead.  At home.

And Louisville's quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, had a broken wrist and a sore ankle, and played on anyway, having to use the shotgun formation on every play because he couldn't take a snap with that bum wrist.

One does not simply blow an 11-point lead with 16 minutes left, at home, to a quarterback with 2 injuries, on national television, with a chance to win the Conference Championship outright, and still call oneself Conference Co-Champions.  It is folly.  With fifty-two thousand men, you could not do this.

Bridgewater led a 90-yard drive that wiped 8 minutes off the clock, and threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Jeremy Wright, to make it 14-10 Rutgers with 49 seconds left in the 3rd quarter.

No problem, Rutgers should be able to hold a 4-point lead with 15:49 to go, right?

Well, yes, they should.

And, no, they didn't.

Jeremy Deering took the ensuing kickoff, and got clobbered by Louisville's James Burgess, and fumbled.  As the word "No!" left my mouth, Louisville recovered the fumble on the Rutgers 20.

One play was all Bridgewater needed to throw a touchdown pass to DeVante Parker.  17-14 Louisville.

It was 16 seconds of hell.

Somehow, Rutgers managed to get back.  A Bridgewater pass bounced off the hands of Eli Rogers, and Lorenzo Waters intercepted it and returned it to the Louisville 42.

But Nova's receivers couldn't catch a cold, and RU could only get to the 21-yard line.  Nick Borgese kicked a 38-yard field goal to tie it up, 17-17.

There was 7:48 remaining.  Could RU's defense hold UL's offense for nearly 8 minutes? Is the Pope Buddhist?

Rutgers did stop Louisville cold and force them to punt.  With 4 minutes left, Rutgers was driving.  The winning touchdown seemed possible.  At the very least, a winning field goal looked likely.

With 3:53 left, Nova threw a pass to Timmy Wright.  But Wright couldn't grab it.  It bounced off his fingertips, and bounced off his knee, and went into the hands of the very same James Burgess who caused the game-changing, history-altering fumble.

Bridgewater got Louisville close enough for Wallace to kick a 29-yard field goal with 1:41 to play.

Rutgers had one last chance.  With 1:06 left, Nova threw into the end zone, but no one got to the ball.  No one, that is, except Louisville's Terrell Floyd, who made the interception.

Final score: Louisville 20, Rutgers 17.

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Rutgers and Louisville are tied for the Big East Championship.  So is Syracuse.  If Cincinnati beats Connecticut tomorrow, it's a 4-way tie, and the tiebreakers work Louisville's way.  In Cincy loses, then it's a 3-way tie, the head-to-head tiebreaker is unbreakable, and the Big East's Bowl Championship Series berth goes to the team ranked highest in the BCS rankings, which will be Louisville.

Louisville will likely go to the Orange Bowl in Miami, although the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans is also a possibility.  Rutgers is probably going to some made-up bowl with a corporate name that I've forgotten and don't care to remember, in Orlando.

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said after the game, "I think we have a football team right now that's hurting."

Ya think, DiNozzo?

The team is hurting? What about the fans? They have suffered with this underachieving team for years.  For decades.  Until 2008, Rutgers had a living graduate from the Class of 1917, who had been the football team's waterboy.  His name was Walter Seward, and he was the oldest living graduate of both Rutgers and Harvard Law School, and 4 months before his death, at 111 years old, he rode in the car that headed RU's graduation parade down College Avenue.  He had waited over 90 years for a moment like last night's game, and it never came.  Now, he must be turning over in his grave.

Last night, RU fans expected to witness -- in the stadium on the banks of the old Raritan, or at least on television all over the Garden State -- a championship rightfully earned.  Instead, they witnessed Rutgers' answer to the Bill Buckner Game.

(Can't call it the Steve Bartman Game, because it wasn't a Rutgers fan in the stands that had anything to do with this loss.  Although when the Bartman game happened, I was actually on the Rutgers campus.  The reason no longer matters.)

The biggest game in Rutgers history, and they blew it with an epic choke.

The previous biggest game in Rutgers history was the November 9, 2006 clash between the same 2 teams, on the same night of the week, on the same network (ESPN), which vaulted Rutgers to the Number 3 ranking in the nation, before they lost Big East games in a flop at Cincinnati and a triple-overtime thriller at West Virginia to finish 11-2 and ranked Number 12.

That letter R, officially scarlet, is looking every bit the badge of shame that Hester Prynne's A ever was.

Look at that picture.  I've seen many variations on it over the years. This is the first time I've seen it on the banks of the old Raritan.

The way Rutgers treated its fans last night reminds me of a cartoon long ago in MAD magazine. This knight (appropriate in this comparison to Rutgers) stabs a guy and says, "God save the King!" The guy he stabs says, "You idiot, I am the King!"

Same old Rutgers, always choking.

Why does Rutgers always have to do this? Why can't they come through and be a true champion?

As Tevye would have said, "Would it spoil some vast eternal plan?"

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