Forum Spin Doctor
PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Students camping out. Temporary bleachers to accommodate the overflow crowd. Tickets that usually sell for $28, going for $200 on eBay. Rutgers football sure has come a long way in a short time.
No long ago it was hard to give away tickets to a Scarlet Knights game. Now, seats for Thursday night's battle of unbeatens between the No. 15 Scarlet Knights and No. 3 Louisville are so scarce that even Gov. Jon S. Corzine appealed to athletic director Robert Mulcahy for an extra pair.
"He said, 'I'm sending a check,'" Mulcahy said.
The game is being billed as the biggest ever played by the school that was part of the first college football game in 1869.
"I think it's a reaction that's in many ways almost an overreaction," Mulcahy said. "They wanted this for so long, the minute they could taste something, it was, 'Boom.'"
It is an understatement to say even the most ardent Rutgers followers probably could not have envisioned this level of hysteria when head coach Greg Schiano took over in 2001 and proceeded to lose 34 of 46 games, including 17 consecutive in Big East play.
The former University of Miami defensive coordinator gradually built a winner out of a program with only three above .500 seasons since 1984. In 2005, Rutgers went to a bowl for the first time since 1978 and this year crashed the Top 25 for the first time in 30 years.
"When I would sit up here and start talking about how we're going to win this and we're going to build this, I'm sure people would think, 'What's this guy smoking today?'" Schiano said this week. "But the alternative is to sit there and say, 'Well, I don't know, we'll see.' So I think that kind of thinking is what carries you through the tough times, and it gives you a consistency that in the athletics world is hugely important."
Thursday's game will be the second in consecutive weeks that pits two undefeated Big East teams, after Louisville's 44-34 defeat of then-No. 3 West Virginia last Thursday. The win vaulted Louisville (-0) to third-place in the Bowl Championship Series standings, but detractors still question the conference's strength.
"What we feel is that we went out on the field and played great football," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "We've played everybody we went up against and did a nice job. Our players here listen and are certainly motivated. We probably need to get (ESPN analyst) Lee Corso to keep talking about us."
Louisville (8-0) has already entered uncharted territory with its highest ranking and spot in the thick of the national title race.
A win by Rutgers (8-0) would dash Louisville's title hopes and move the Scarlet Knights into the national championship discussion.
While Louisville's win over West Virginia is viewed as a defining moment in the program's history, Rutgers is coming into the game off one of its worst performances of the season. The Scarlet Knights beat Connecticut 24-13 two Sundays ago with only one offensive touchdown.
Rutgers is 4-1 against Louisville, but the last meeting was a humiliating for the Knights.
The Cardinals won 56-5 in Louisville last year and held the Scarlet Knights to nine first downs.
"You pretty much use it as a positive," Rutgers defensive tackle Ramel Meekins said. "It's in the past and it happened. You take it and you run with it. You take the good and the bad, and you turn the bad into good and make the good even better."
The Louisville offense, averaging 492 yards and 39 points per game, will be the toughest test of the season for a Rutgers' defense ranked No. 2 in the country and allowing nine points per game.
Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm has recovered from a thumb injury this season to lead the Big East in passing and total offense. Schiano put him among the best he has coached against, a group that includes Michael Vick and Kerry Collins.
Rutgers counters with a rushing attack led by sophomore running back Ray Rice, the nation's third-leading rusher with 1,203 yards who is recovered from an ankle sprain suffered against UConn. Despite losing featured back Michael Bush to a broken leg in the first game of the season, Louisville rushes for 203 yards per game, 10 more than Rutgers.