Better than expected for Rutgers

The team is an about face.

Last year, Rutgers – the team that beat Princeton in the first intercollegiate football game ever in 1869 – went 4-7 as one of the few teams that remained in the former Big East.

That team was not bowl eligible.

Nearly a year later, the Scarlet Knights, coming off a 31-21 win over Navy on Saturday, have secured themselves in one of the four bowl bids allocated to the Big East Conference. West Virginia has another.

Rutgers has a 6-2 record coming into this weekend’s game with the Bulls, but coach Greg Schiano doesn’t credit the team’s turnaround success this year to just the improved play since its 33-30 loss – a nail-biting defeat – to Illinois on ESPN2 for the first game of its season.

“This isn’t just a year turnaround,” Schiano said. “This is something that has been in the making. We really have been building something here (at Rutgers); it’s a continuation of the process.”

Schiano has had a tenuous career at both the college and NFL levels of football, having seen stints with the Miami Hurricanes (1999-2000) and the Chicago Bears (1996-98). But before all that, he started off working for a legend the Bulls have already faced this season: Penn State patriarch Joe Paterno.

“Actually, I worked for Joe Paterno for six years,” Schiano said. “One year as a graduate assistant and five years as the secondary coach. I learned a ton (from him). There isn’t a day that doesn’t go by that I don’t think of something he would say or something that he would do. He had a big influence on my coaching career.

“I’ve heard from some of them this year (with the successful turnaround), giving me some congrats and stuff like that, but I’m not going to get into who called and what was said.”

Schiano won’t take much of the credit for Rutgers’ quick success after such a slide last season, but one can only expect this from someone who has coached in seven different bowl games.

However, Schiano knows the sting of losing all too well.

“This is how major sports is and college football is. People want to talk to you when you win and when you don’t; you know why they don’t want to. I’m grateful they do want to talk us, and we have to (keep this season) in perspective.”

This season boasts a defense ranked No. 45 in the nation – compared to No. 21 USF – and a rushing offense that is 57th, led by freshman running back Raymell Rice (622 yards, three touchdowns) and junior fullback Brian Leonard (562 yards, seven touchdowns). In less than three years, Leonard has accumulated 2,174 yards and 23 touchdowns.

Schiano said Saturday’s win over the Midshipmen was “good for the program and the fans” and that “it’s always difficult to play the Naval Academy.” He also realizes that this week is over, and it’s “time to get ready” for USF, which has had 20 days’ rest since the 31-17 loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 15.

“This is a very, very talented South Florida team,” Schiano said. “It’s strange, but they have had so much rest recently.”

For Schiano’s turnaround, it’s been no rest for the weary.