Rutgers reloading after string of success

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. | There’s a not-so-surprising sight coming to Byrd Stadium on Saturday - the football team of a large state school that reached some of its finest days this decade but just endured a significant exodus of talent.

Well, another one.

Maryland’s stumbles are well-known in the area after Saturday’s 32-31 loss to Middle Tennessee dropped the Terrapins to 1-2. But their visitor this week - unranked Rutgers - isn’t all that dissimilar, minus the humbling nonconference loss.

This isn’t the sad-sack Rutgers of a decade ago, of course. But it’s also not the vaunted team ranked in the top 10 before losing to the Terps two seasons ago.

Tailback Ray Rice bolted for the NFL after that year. Quarterback Mike Teel and wide receivers Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood departed after last season.

And what’s left? An untested offense and a veteran defense trying to uphold the Scarlet Knights’ recent rise from the depths of Division I.

“When you get here, you know those guys have to leave sometime,” senior wide receiver Tim Brown said Monday. “You just have to keep working and not worry about who’s here and who’s not here and just go with the guys who are here. That’s what we’ve been doing - not worrying about who is left and who we lost.”

Still, it’s hard not to ponder it, especially since much is still to be learned about Rutgers.

Cincinnati ripped the Scarlet Knights in a nationally televised opener in the debut of Rutgers’ renovated stadium. Then came a blowout of Howard before a ho-hum 23-15 defeat of Florida International on Saturday. Rutgers is 2-1, but it remains a bit of a mystery.

“We’re getting better,” coach Greg Schiano said. “How fast we can do that is going to determine what kind of a season we have.”

It wasn’t too long ago fans would have considered a 2-1 start downright torrid. It occurred just once between 1995 and 2002, but Schiano’s construction project has since led to four straight bowl berths - and a record as good as or better than Maryland’s in each of those seasons.

However, maintaining things is tricky, especially with a true freshman at quarterback. Tom Savage took over the job from senior Domenic Natale at halftime of the opener but left Saturday in the fourth quarter after taking a hit in open space. Schiano said he was uncertain of Savage’s prognosis, though he was optimistic about the quarterback’s chances of playing this week.

It would be a significant step in the progression for Savage, who has yet to throw an interception in 64 attempts.

“He’s a freshman that listens,” Brown said. “That’s what I like about him. He listens. He’s always in the meeting room trying to get things right. I don’t look at him as a freshman. I look at him as an upperclassman that is going to be on the rise.”

How high and how fast, though, remain uncertain. The Scarlet Knights are hardly at risk of sinking back to the program’s miserable state before Schiano’s arrival, but they’ve also leveled off since a breakout 11-2 season in 2006 and a quick start the next year - at one point losing 10 of 16 games before a second-half surge last fall.

Still, eight-win seasons weren’t the norm until this decade. Neither were postseason appearances. Victories and bowl berths are usually solid barometers, and they’ll be the easiest way to assess Rutgers’ staying power after the offseason’s offensive talent drain.

“Teel set the standards very high, and they’re very difficult shoes to fill,” Savage said. “And with Kenny Britt and all the other great players who came out of here, they just set it for us. We just have to keep performing. We’re not trying to compare ourselves to them, but we have to go out there and keep doing what they’re doing. They’ve been so good. if we match them, we’re at a very good standard.”

Simply maintaining such quality is difficult, as the Scarlet Knights could ask their hosts this week. Much like Rutgers, Maryland began the decade with a reputation for recent futility. And while the Terps are better off than they were throughout the dark days of the 1990s, they found it difficult to remain entrenched in the national rankings after three excellent years.

The Scarlet Knights are in a similar place and understandably trying to one-up themselves rather than simply reach the level of their immediate predecessors.

“I don’t think we’re chasing it,” said safety Joe Lefeged, probably best known to Maryland fans for a helmet-to-helmet hit two seasons ago on quarterback Jordan Steffy that caused a concussion. “I think we’re trying to continue doing what we are doing and trying to do it better. We haven’t reached any of our goals yet. One is a national championship. Two is a Big East championship. I guess that’s what we’re chasing.”

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