In a village on La Gonave Island, a reef-fringed spot off the coast of Haiti, Gary Nova slept on a cot under mosquito netting taped to the wall. There was no electricity. He showered outside using buckets of water. Cows, donkeys, dogs and bulls roamed around freely. When those bulls came closer down a path or road, the local children threw rocks and chased after them, which stood in contrast to Nova’s instinct to run for his life.
There was a church in the middle of this village. About 20 years ago, Nova was told, construction began on the church. The work wasn’t completed, and the structure just sat there as it was. On a service trip over seven days in March, while their friends and fellow students enjoyed spring-break vacations featuring indoor plumbing and cell phone service, Nova and six Rutgers teammates put on thick gloves, suffered the heat and did what they could to fix the church. They worked on rebuilding something that never truly got built in the first place.
“We had to knock it down,” Nova says, “and basically build back up the foundation.”
Rutgers will play its first Big Ten football game Saturday when Penn State visits High Point Solutions Stadium. There are more important college football contests this season, not to mention this weekend alone, but there is no overstating the significance of this one night for the hosts. Penn State is the long-time neighborhood bully, the regional powerhouse wounded by scandal but planning to thrive partly by invading Rutgers’ fertile New Jersey recruiting turf. The Scarlet Knights, meanwhile, have their first stage from which to argue that their Big Ten membership wasn’t entirely about cable fees. That they can be a viable force in this league. That they can build something that, in a lot of senses, never got fully built before.
The Big Ten stumbled badly a weekend ago. On Saturday, Rutgers might have a chance to turn that into a clear view ahead. “I view it as a big step,” tailback Paul James says. “It’s our first Big Ten game, it’s our establishing game to show the Big Ten and everyone else that we’re ready to play football, we’re ready to compete.”
Or as defensive lineman Darius Hamilton puts it: “At 8 o’clock, when that ball is kicked, we’re making history.”
It’s a big moment. Maybe it’s only appropriate then that a senior quarterback who was torn down and reconstructed could define it.
Nova had been a tantalizing freshman starter from a storied New Jersey high school program, Don Bosco Prep, but interceptions (39 in 33 games over three seasons) and inconsistency plagued him thereafter. He was picked off by opponents and picked over by an impatient fan base before Nova was benched for the final three games of 2013. As Nova wondered how he could prevent that from happening again, he could not have imagined the answer: the offseason hiring of Ralph Friedgen as offensive coordinator and the floor-to-ceiling rehab the former Maryland coach performed that has Nova completing 67.4 percent of his passes with six touchdown tosses over his first two games.
“I definitely don’t wish anybody to cut me any slack,” Nova says. “There have been some ups and downs, but I feel like the guys in the locker room know that I come to work every day and, yeah, sometimes things out on the field don’t go as planned. But I work my hardest every day to try to be the best leader I can for this team. I still have some games to go to try to end it out on a really high note.”
That seemed beyond his grasp on Nov. 24, 2013, a Sunday night, when Rutgers coach Kyle Flood called Nova into his office. The team had lost four of five. Nova had completed fewer than half of his passes in back-to-back defeats. Flood told Nova, a team captain, that he was making a change under center. Nova would finish the season in the top 5 of Rutgers' career passing statistics like yards, completions and touchdowns, but he’d also finish the season as a spectator.
Nova returned to his apartment that night and talked over the news with his roommate, offensive lineman Kaleb Johnson. He called his father. Nova’s older brother, Ryan, would tell him later that the benching wouldn’t define him as much as his response to it. The counsel was about what anyone would expect from friends and family. It just wasn’t a solution.
Nova realized he was in a “performance business,” as he describes it now. He knew he wasn’t doing his job. He just didn’t necessarily know why that was. “I didn’t really have that much confidence in myself,” Nova says. “I was questioning why all this stuff was happening.”
The answers came when a 67-year-old man three years into his retirement came into view. Friedgen officially joined the Rutgers staff on Jan. 31 after living outside the game since his bitter 2010 parting with Maryland following 10 years as head coach. When Friedgen began meeting with his new players and preparing for the coming season, Nova and the rest of the quarterbacks might have wondered if they’d made a wrong turn to the wrong room: Friedgen began his offensive inculcation by teaching defense.
For a month and a half, Nova says, Friedgen didn’t install plays or progressions. He talked about techniques along the defensive line. He discussed coverages on the back end. As Nova absorbed all this, he realized: He’d never been taught any of this before. “The way he talks about fronts, it’s not always ‘under’ front or ‘over’ front or things like that,” Nova says. “He’s talking about Wide 59, Tight 89. It was real foreign for me when I heard it. Now I come off the sideline and coach will ask me, ‘What front was it?’ I’ll say, ‘It was a 50 front with weakside coverage,’ things like that. It really just makes the game clear.”
This was Friedgen, who wasn’t available to comment for this story, jackhammering Nova’s foundation into dust to create a new one. Without understanding what a defense was doing, Nova had no chance to understand what Friedgen wanted to do on his end.
Once Nova learned about defenses, he and Friedgen worked on actually seeing them.
The pair honed in on eye discipline, keeping Nova locked into the action down the field. He wasn’t to assume or anticipate anything. He had to read every play out. “I was real small-picture,” Nova says of his earlier bad habits. “If my first progression guy wasn’t there, I’d just go to the second one, not understanding why I was going to the second one. Now, I might know (at the line) that I’m going to have to go to my check-down because they’re playing a coverage that’s going to take away (options) one and two.”
The instruction, Nova says, arrives in “the most simplistic version you can teach.” Friedgen uses straightforward language. He doesn’t move on from a concept until everyone understands it. All of this triggered the breakthrough Nova knew he needed, without having any idea how it would come last November.
“Ralph is a tremendous offensive coordinator,” says Flood, who received a two-year extension and a raise Thursday. “But just as important as that, he’s a tremendous teacher. He’s done an excellent job with Gary as far as relaying what his thoughts are to allow Gary to be the coach on the field. That’s the biggest difference I’ve seen in Gary’s game as opposed to the first three seasons that he played quarterback for us. He really is becoming a complete player out there.”
That was clear to teammates before the season even started. Nova was more vocal and emphatic making checks with the offensive line. And he was more risk-averse after the snap. “He makes some of the smartest decisions I’ve ever seen,” Hamilton says. “He doesn’t try to force it anymore. He’ll throw one out (of bounds). People won’t look at those as huge deals, but those can ultimately change the outcome of games.”
The effects go beyond the meeting room or field. Hamilton has known Nova since they played at Don Bosco Prep, and the Scarlet Knights’ defensive lineman believes this is the happiest he’s ever seen the guy he considers a big brother. It stands to reason. Nova has a big-play receiver in Leonte Carroo, who averages 24.4 yards per catch. He has an emerging star tailback in James, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry with 100 yards receiving and six total touchdowns in two games. And he has a command of the offense unlike any he’s had before, with a coach speaking to him in ways he finally can understand.
But Washington State and Howard, the two opponents dispatched so far, are not Penn State. This is the game, as Nova says, that people have been talking about since the first day of classes. Rutgers won nine games in the Big East as recently as two seasons ago, but the Big Ten provides a larger stage for the program to begin to redefine perceptions. And in a suddenly beleaguered conference, the home games with Michigan and Wisconsin and the road trips to Ohio State and Nebraska look less ghoulish. Rutgers and its senior quarterback might be at the precipice of something significant on one of their biggest nights ever.
“Every game is huge for the quarterback to go out and run the offense and execute and be a leader for the team,” Nova says. “I have the same mindset I have going into every game: I just try to be the best quarterback I can be for this team.”
During those seven days in Haiti last March, Nova and the Rutgers crew managed to erect four new walls for that old church. Still, when they departed, they left work to be done. The place needed a roof, for one thing. Nova hopes another group will come through to help, but you could hear the angst in his voice over the unfinished project.
They’d done a lot of rebuilding, after all. It’d be a shame not to cap it off.