When Rutgers joined the Big Ten with Maryland last July, its new opponents weren't exactly shaking in their boots. While conference realignment drastically shifted the landscape in other parts of the country, Rutgers’ move from the American Athletic Conference was met with apathy. Some opposing fans had no idea where the school was, and most pundits pegged the program to finish at the bottom of the Big Ten’s East Division. If the Knights would ever shake up the conference, it wouldn’t be in 2014.
Those predictions were sound. Rutgers didn’t contend for a spot in Indianapolis this year, but the Knights did the program proud in its first Big Ten season. They finished fourth in the East, and their 40-21 win over North Carolina in Friday’s Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit capped an eight-win season and showed an improving program that could impact the Big Ten in years to come.
The Knights’ offense, which averaged just 25.6 points per game this year, nearly met that mark by halftime against the Tar Heels. Larry Fedora’s team shot itself in the foot constantly, coughing up two fumbles, botching a fake field goal and having another blocked. By the end of the lopsided first half, Rutgers led 23-0.
North Carolina finally put points on the board early in the third quarter on a run by quarterback Marquise Williams to make it 23-7. But Rutgers tacked on two more scores and a field goal to boost its lead to a commanding 40-7. The Knights finished with 516 total yards or 8.5 per play as running backs Josh Hicks and Robert Martin combined for 294 rushing yards. Quarterback Gary Nova threw for two touchdowns and no interceptions.
But let’s not get carried away. Rutgers still has a long way to go in its new conference, evidenced by recent performances against the league’s top teams. The Knights’ 5-1 start this season -- which included a 26-24 win over Michigan -- quickly turned into four losses in their final six regular season contests. They lost to Ohio State, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan State by a combined score of 180-44. Rutgers’ Big Ten future hinges on contending with those programs.
But momentum can be a good thing for a team trying to make an impact in a new conference. The Knights entered the Quick Lane Bowl coming off a 41-38 win over Maryland. They hung with Penn State in a 13-10 loss earlier in the year. Coach Kyle Flood’s task is to minimize the talent gap between his roster and the Big Ten’s big boys, which is easier said than done. But Friday’s bowl performance is something his team can build on in the meantime.
The third-year head coach knows the importance of a bowl win in his first year in the Big Ten.
“This is, I think, a significant accomplishment for this football team,” Flood told reporters earlier this month. “Now the idea is to be bowl champions; it's not just to go.”
The same could be said for Rutgers’ future in the Big Ten: The program wants to compete, not just enjoy its membership. That challenge will be easier entering the offseason with momentum.