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N.J. players have Rutgers on verge of rare bowl

Posted: Thursday October 27, 2005 11:42AM; Updated: Thursday October 27, 2005 11:42AM
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Brian Leonard
Rutgers running back Brian Leonard (23) has rushed for five touchdowns in seven games this season and caught passes for four more.
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On Dec. 13, 2000, Ryan Neill, a senior defensive end at Wayne Hills High in New Jersey, reluctantly joined 34 fellow Garden State football standouts at the Rutgers' Hale Center for an open house with newly hired Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano.

"I had never thought much of Rutgers; I was going to go to Northwestern, Pittsburgh or Wake Forest," Neill said this week. "My high school coach had to talk me into [attending]."

Neill listened that night as the then 34-year-old Schiano, a New Jersey native fresh from a two-year stint as Miami's defensive coordinator, proclaimed his intention to reclaim The State of Rutgers, a reference to the then-annual exodus of upper-level New Jersey prospects to out-of-state colleges. "The boat is going to fill up fast," the young coach reportedly told his audience that night. "The first guys who come tell me they want in, you're on."

"When we looked around at the guys in the room [that night] and how many different places they had to go," said offensive lineman Sameeh McDonald, "we understood that if we stayed home, we could really turn [Rutgers] around."

Neill and McDonald decided to get on the boat, which, in theirs and Schiano's first season at the school, steered its way to a 2-9 season. That was followed by 1-11. Then 5-7. Then 4-7.

This Saturday, however, after five years on the receiving end of punchlines and punches to the stomach, Rutgers may finally reach its intended destination. With a win over 4-2 Navy in front of an expected sell-out crowd at 42,000-seat Rutgers Stadium, the Scarlet Knights (5-2) will become eligible for just their the second bowl berth in school history, their first since 1978.

"It will probably be a madhouse afterward if they pull it out," said Paul Yunos, a Rutgers senior and associate sports editor for the student paper, The Daily Targum. "A lot of students I've talked to have already said they're going to travel if there's a bowl."

The Knights' most likely holiday destinations would be Phoenix (Insight Bowl) or Charlotte, N.C. (Meineke Car Care Bowl), both obligated to pick a Big East team. But this being Rutgers, no one's making any reservations until it happens. This is, after all, the same program that started 4-2 last year, only to finish 4-7, and one that blew a 27-7 lead in a season-opening loss to Illinois, now 2-5.

Recent evidence, however, suggests this isn't the same old Rutgers. A team that won just three Big East games over Schiano's first four seasons has equaled that total already with victories against Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Connecticut. The latter two gave the Knights consecutive road wins for the first time in a decade.

"It's been a while since we've been back in contention for anything, so I'm excited about it," Schiano said this week. "But I also know that if we don't go win Saturday, then the talk is, 'Are they ever going to win that illustrious sixth game?' "

If he does reach that illustrious sixth win, Schiano might want to send thank-you notes to his athletic director, Robert Mulcahy, who scheduled non-conference games against Villanova (a I-AA team) and Buffalo, and to ACC commissioner John Swofford, whose 2003 raid of the Big East stripped the league of perennial Rutgers-conquerors Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.