PISCATAWAY — Players jumped up and down. Fans rocked the stadium with euphoric cheers. Even Rutgers University football coach Kyle Flood egged on the crowd with animated gestures.
The Scarlet Knights appeared to be on their way to a runaway victory in the de facto Big East Conference championship game Thursday night at High Point Solutions Stadium.
But a few brutal mistakes ensured that Rutgers will have to wait at least another year for that elusive first Bowl Championship Series berth.
A crippling penalty and an even-worse fumble contributed to a 21-point swing late in the third quarter, and Louisville later got the winning points off an interception to beat Rutgers 20-17 in front of a sold-out crowd of 52,798.
“The effort and the emotion that was poured into that game, right now their hearts have been ripped out,” Flood said.
With Orange Bowl representatives in the building, clad in bright-orange blazers, Rutgers appeared to be on its way to an easy win and its first BCS berth. The crowd, the second-largest in the stadium’s history, was in a frenzy as Rutgers scored on its first offensive play of the game and jumped out to a 14-3 lead.
But Louisville (10-2, 5-2 Big East) would be the one celebrating on the field with oranges afterward, likely bound for the Orange Bowl in Miami. Rutgers (9-3, 5-2) clinched a share of the Big East title last week, but the conference’s automatic bid will most likely go to the Cardinals who have the tiebreaker.
“This one’s hard, for all of us, for how much we put into this,” said Rutgers receiver Brandon Coleman, who caught an 85-yard touchdown pass on the team’s first offensive play. “To come up short, it hurts.”
Midway through the third quarter, Rutgers appeared to have taken a 21-3 lead on a fake field goal, with holder J.T. Tartacoff throwing a 26-yard touchdown to D.C. Jefferson.
But the Scarlet Knights were called for an ineligible player downfield and had to punt instead.
Louisville then drove 90 yards in 7 minutes, 46 seconds and scored on Teddy Bridgewater’s 14-yard pass to Jeremy Wright with 49 seconds left in the third quarter.
Things got worse for Rutgers when Jeremy Deering fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Bridgewater threw a 20-yard TD to DeVante Parker on the next play to put Louisville up 17-14 heading into the fourth.
“It’s kind of a 21-point swing in a very short amount of time,” Flood said, “and we were never able to really swing the momentum back, and that’s my job, so I take responsibility for that.”
Rutgers had a chance to reclaim the momentum when Nova found Tim Wright open running across the field on the next drive. But Wright dropped the ball.
“Lack of concentration,” Wright said. “Didn’t look it all the way in with my eyes.”
The Scarlet Knights did manage to tie it on a Nick Borgese field goal with 7:48 left. That was set up by a Lorenzo Waters interception that he returned into Louisville territory.
The Rutgers defense then got another stop, forcing a punt, but three plays later Nova threw a ball down the middle that hit Wright in the chest and bounced into the hands of Louisville’s James Burgess.
The Cardinals drove down for a 29-yard field goal with 1:41 remaining.
Rutgers had one final chance, but Louisville sealed it on a bizarre play as Nova threw a deep ball but Coleman broke off his route. With no Rutgers receivers in the area, Terell Floyd made the easy interception to clinch the win.
“Bad play by me. That’s all,” said Nova, who was 13-for-28 for 284 yards. “It was my fault. That’s all that needs to be known. It was my fault, and that’s it.”
Rutgers appeared to be headed for a blowout early in the game.
After Coleman’s 85-yard score, Nova threw a 68-yarder to Mark Harrison to make it 14-3. Wearing all black, the Rutgers defense swarmed around Bridgewater, making several tackles for losses and keeping the crowd amped up.
“We really believed we were going to win,” Rutgers defensive back Logan Ryan said.
But Louisville managed to stay within striking distance. Bridgewater didn’t start the game after breaking his left wrist and spraining his right ankle in last weekend’s loss to Connecticut. But he was 20-for-28 for 263 yards passing and the two touchdowns.
“I didn’t beat us up,” Cardinals coach Charlie Strong said of his halftime speech. “I said, ‘We have one game. We have 30 minutes of football left.’ … (I said) to keep fighting, keep battling and someone is going to make a play sooner or later.
Louisville made plenty of plays in the second half. Rutgers’ offense, meanwhile, struggled to find a rhythm.
“I don’t think we got complacent or anything like that,” Nova said. “For whatever reason we just couldn’t execute on third downs, couldn’t get drives going, and put our defense in a tough spot.”
The Scarlet Knights struggled running the ball as leading rusher Jawan Jamison only had 50 yards on 15 carries.
Rutgers would have won the Big East title outright with a win. While Rutgers already had clinched a share of the title, Louisville earned the conference’s BCS bid on a tiebreaker. The Scarlet Knights still will go to a bowl game, but not a BCS bowl.
“We still won (a share of) the Big East championship, but we wanted it to be ours,” Nova said.
Louisville, meanwhile, likely is headed to the Orange Bowl.
“It’s just the way the game went and played out was just unfortunate,” Coleman said. “Credit Louisville for finishing the game, playing four quarters of football. That’s what it took.”
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