Twenty-two thousand six hundred fifty-eight hungry fans packed UB Stadium last night hoping to see the Bulls shock the world by beating the Scarlet Knights. Those who wanted a filet, however, were treated to sirloin.
The Bulls 15-31 defeat at the hands of the Scarlet Knights showed that while they may belong at the dance, the slipper does not fit quite yet. In every lopsided score, there is a turning point that breaks open an otherwise close game. In Thursday's contest, one had to look no further then Shawn Seabrook's 73-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the first quarter; it was a ball quarterback Joe Freedy would love to have back.
At the time, Rutgers' offense was in two gears: slow and stop. The Bulls defense had already caused two turnovers, and Rutgers freshmen quarterback Ryan Cubit was spending more time on his back than in the pocket.
The Bulls offense was mounting a nice drive and seemed poised to capitalize on the opportunity their defense had created, and then ...
Freedy was flushed out of the pocket where he made the right read and found his outlet receiver Chad Bartoszek open at the 30-yard line. Freedy threw the ball right on line but was running too fast, had too much adrenaline and made his costliest mistake of the evening.
The ball sailed off Bartoszek's fingertips and into the hands of a surprised Seabrook, who still had to make a tough juggling catch on the play. Seabrook had an unobstructed path to the end zone, which he gladly took advantage of. As he sauntered in for the touchdown, one could almost hear the wind being let out of the Bulls' sails.
"You don't have to be a fifth-year senior to know not to make that play ... you tuck it and run," said Freedy.
Freedy, (21-40) for 180 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions, remained critical of his performance.
"I thought the defense played extremely well. They gave us every chance to win, and I didn't get my job done tonight."
Bartoszek disagreed with Freedy's version of the play. "I'll take the blame for that, I went up and tipped it." Whatever the case, Rutgers never looked back from their 7-0 lead.
Rutgers' offense, which had been dormant until that point, was able to find its rhythm and take advantage of good field position to finish off a 7-play, 57-yard drive on Cubits' one-yard toss to tight end L.J. Smith. On that drive, the Scarlet Knights established a ground presence behind the power running of tailback Dennis Thomas, who slashed through the Bulls defense for a career high 181 yards. His presence opened up the outside of the field for speed receiver Aaron Martin, who capitalized on the single coverage for a couple big plays, including a 24-yard touchdown strike that gave the Knights a commanding 31-7 lead and essentially put the game out of reach.
While Rutgers was able to establish a nice balance of rush and pass, the Bulls played catch-up all night, taking them out of their ground game, which never had a chance to really get on track.
Senior back Albert Grundy led the charge with 55 yards on 13 carries, and sophomore Marquis Dwarte chipped in with 34 yards on only 7 carries. Rutgers stopped the Bulls ground game by default, as they were forced to throw 40 passes, a recipe for defeat. "We lost our balance between run and pass because of the early scores," said UB Head Coach Jim Hofher.
Fittingly, it was the Bulls defense that broke the Bulls' seven-quarter scoring drought against their Big East foes. With the Bulls trailing 23-0 in the fourth, senior safety Craig Rohlfs electrified the packed house, which had spent most of the previous three quarters sitting on their hands.
Rohlfs made a great pick of a poorly thrown ball from Cubit at his own 18 yard line. The true brilliance of his play, however, was his return, in which he split a swarm of Rutgers offensive linemen and running backs and was off to the races. The 82 yard return was the third longest in team history and the Bulls' first interception return for a touchdown since 1998. "He threw it up for grabs, I went and got it and took off," said Rohlfs.
That play seemed to ignite the Bulls offense, which mounted an impressive 10-play, 77-yard drive capped off by Dan Lindsay's 16-yard TD reception off a perfectly timed timing pattern from Freedy. While that drive did little except to make the score look more respectable, it was one of many positives the Bulls could take from the game.
First, compared to the 59-0 thrashing the Bulls received last year from the Scarlet Knights, this game was a triple overtime thriller. The disparity between the margins of defeat may indicate a marked improvement on this year's squad.
Secondly, both offensive and defensive lines held their own against solid Big East competition. The defensive line, in particular Chris Shelly and Craig Johnson, was able to record three sacks and numerous pressures on Rutgers freshman quarterback Ryan Cubit, who handled the heat admirably.
"Ryan Cubit took a lot of hits," said Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano. "Even the ones he got off for big plays he got hit. His protection wasn't what we wanted it to be."
Commenting on his team's performance after the game, Hofher said, "I'm very proud of their effort. They played very hard. They'll have a chance to improve if they'll continue to do that.
"None of us like the result. We hate the results. But, usually teams that want to get good improve significantly from their first game to their second game."