Rutgers tailback Ray Rice was gassed, the product of 26 carries in the first three quarters of a nationally televised meeting with Pittsburgh last fall.
The Scarlet Knights clung to a three-point lead on the road, their unbeaten season in jeopardy. And there was only one sensible thing to do: keep giving Rice the ball.
“He’s dog tired, and I pull him up by the facemask and ask him, ‘Do you have one more carry in you?’ ” quarterback Mike Teel recalled. “He said, ‘I’ve got as many as you need.’ On the next play, he ended up breaking off a 63-yard run, and that ended up sealing the deal.”
Rice wound up with 39 carries and 225 yards, both career highs. Such a night is ideal for a Heisman Trophy candidate and better still for a team harboring national title dreams.
But it’s a vignette that perfectly illustrates the value of a player who in a little more than two seasons emerged as the face of an improbable burgeoning powerhouse.
Rice’s Heisman campaign is well under way. He has his own Web site (seerayrun.com), and Rutgers’ athletic communications office distributed binoculars with the See Ray Run slogan. A video clip of Rice is shown 128 times a day on the large screen in New York’s Times Square.
And, of course, Rice has a hand in the Scarlet Knights’ bolting to a 3-0 start and a No. 10 ranking entering tomorrow’s date with Maryland (2-2) at Rutgers Stadium.
“It feels good to know our program is going in the right direction,” Rice said. “I can be a great role model. It’s good publicity for me and the program. But as much as they see me, there’s many faces and other teammates and other stars around this team.”
Rice, though, is the one player instantly linked with the Scarlet Knights’ resurgence. Teel leads the nation is passing efficiency with a 236.65 rating. Tiquan Underwood already has 500 yards receiving. The defense, stout a year ago, has yielded 27 points in three games.
As effective as any other facet of Rutgers’ program is, it is Rice who draws most of the attention. And why not? He galloped for 1,794 yards last year — more than 65 major college teams — and has rolled up 431 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
The Rutgers story itself is intriguing. A program nestled in one of East Coast’s prime recruiting grounds remained dormant for nearly a quarter-century as national power after national power poached New Jersey’s best players before Greg Schiano was hired before the 2001 season.
The growth of the program was gradual rather than immediate, but the Scarlet Knights are coming off their first back-to-back bowl berths. The success generated more attention, although Rice’s rugged running style keeps Rutgers a staple in discussions at the national level.
“If you just have a great player, it doesn’t matter,” Schiano said. “But having a great player and winning, then you have something that does get attention and national exposure, and I think that’s great.”
The attention is mounting. The Scarlet Knights were guaranteed four national television appearances at the start of the season and added a fifth (against unbeaten Cincinnati), and a sixth (a home date next month with West Virginia) seems likely. By comparison, Rutgers played on national TV six times between 1998 and 2004.
One difference since then? The payoff of Schiano’s dedication to growing a program at which apathy once reigned. Then there’s Rice, who provided a player unseen at a school that has never produced a first-round pick that played in the NFL.
“The day Ray walked onto campus, you just knew there was something to him,” said Teel, who arrived a year earlier than Rice. “You didn’t know what it was, but you knew he was a winner and a kid who was going to be a special player.”
Rice downplays his role in the Scarlet Knights’ turnaround, but it’s hard to ignore. After all, Rutgers’ postseason history consisted of a 1978 Garden State Bowl loss to Arizona State before the last two seasons.
The Scarlet Knights earned their first bowl victory last year. More breakthroughs — a lot more — could be on the way this season.
“It’s great,” Rice said. “It’s everything I could have pictured, everything I could have imagined and everything I could have wanted to be in a program that came from nothing to something.”
Note — Maryland left tackle Scott Burley practiced yesterday and seems likely to play Saturday against Rutgers.
“He’s doing good,” coach Ralph Friedgen said. “It’s something he’s just trying to get through. I don’t know if he can hurt it any more. It’s just he has a bone bruise and he has a soft tissue bruise. They’re right in the same area, and when the soft tissue gets hit he has trouble locking out. … We just hope he doesn’t get hit on it again.”