Just when you thought the national-title race was gaining some clarity, along comes Rutgers. Yep, those good old BCS-busting Scarlet Knights, doing what they do best -- rallying back from a 25-7 deficit while holding the nation's second-ranked offense to 53 second-half yards to emerge as the Big East's lone remaining undefeated team.
Wait ... Rutgers did what?
"We're knocking down the door," said Scarlet Knights defensive tackle Eric Foster following his team's breathtaking and historic 28-25 win over No. 3 Louisville here Thursday. "You better let us in."
For the second straight week, two undefeated, nationally ranked Big East teams put the "Must See TV" back in Thursday night. This one started out with all the makings of a stinker, but by the time the clock struck 0:00 and a sea of pent-up Rutgers students had stormed the field, the college football world had been treated to one of the most spectacular and improbable endings of the entire season -- not to mention the sport's biggest Cinderella story since Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl.
Stop and let it sink in for a second. No -- really let it sink in. As of today, we are down to three undefeated, major-conference teams in college football this season: Ohio State, Michigan ... and Rutgers.
We'll save you the history lesson. Surely you know the highlights (or, more appropriately, lowlights). Five years ago, Rutgers fullback BrianLeonard's team went 1-11, and no one considered it particularly surprising. After all, it was only one less win than the Scarlet Knights had notched the year before.
Thursday night, with just under two minutes remaining in a 25-25 game, Leonard, now a fifth-year senior, sprung out of the backfield on third-and-six, caught a Mike Teel pass and raced 26 yards down the right sideline to the unbridled delight of 44,111 screaming, towel-waving Rutgers crazies. Five plays later, with just 21 seconds remaining, junior Jeremy Ito, Groza Award semifinalist and lights-out accurate kicker, lined up for the biggest field goal in the 137-year history of his football program, a routine 33-yard attempt lined up right between the hash marks.
And he missed!
Just a split-second before toe met leather, however, Louisville cornerback William Gay had jumped offsides, a transgression so blatant that he was on his knees, hands on head in disbelief, before the referee even announced the call. Once he did, and the ball was moved five yards closer, Ito kicked again. This time, no problem.
Rutgers 28, Louisville 25.
"No amount of money could pay for this feeling right now," said Leonard, who passed up certain NFL riches to return for his fifth year. "It's the most amazing feeling in my life."
The scene in the crowded hallway outside the Rutgers locker room afterward was the kind you more customarily see at a Miami or USC. Heralded recruits in street clothes mingled with jubilant players in uniform. Head coach Greg Schiano slowly made his way through a sea of well-wishers, including representatives from the Fiesta and Sugar bowls, the Big East and ESPN.
All wore a similar expression -- a mix of awe and daze.
"This program has changed so fast," observed sophomore tailback Ray Rice following a 22-carry, 131-yard performance, more than half of which came in the fourth quarter. "In the long run [I saw this happening], but not this fast. It's my second year here, and we're ranked and 9-0."