Sept. 6, 2004
By Dennis Dodd
SportsLine.com Senior Writer
Tell Dennis your opinion!


Rutgers coach Greg Schiano is happy to create the barstool argument.

Was the Scarlet Knights' 19-14 victory over Michigan State on Saturday maybe the biggest upset of the season to date? Judge for yourself: Rutgers opened the season at home before a packed house coming off a five-win season. The heat, that used to be focused on Schiano and his players, instead took a lot out of the Spartans in steamy Piscataway.


Ryan Neil is hugged after returning an interception for Rutgers' only TD in Saturday's big win.(AP)
"To our kids and to our staff, I don't think it was (an upset)," Schiano said. "but probably nationally it certainly is because of the reputation we've had."

For years, the reps of Rutgers and New Jersey were both a challenge for the tour and convention bureau. Without going into a lot detail, suffice to say there aren't many states featured in a cable series about a ruthless crime family.

At least The Sopranos has been a hit. Rutgers had hit bottom with 11 straight sub.-500 seasons going into this season.

"The state could really use something to get behind now," Schiano said.

Rutgers football might be it. After three mostly down seasons, under Schiano (9-27 overall) the Scarlet Knights are hotter than the weather. Anyone who checked into their personnel and 5-7 finish in 2003 knew this might be coming, but c'mon, it was still Rutgers.

In its 135-year history, the program has been to one bowl -- the 1978 Garden State Bowl, a postseason game that was created just for the school and no longer exists.

Its own fans were booing the school that played in the first college football game in 1869. Saturday became a coming out of sorts with a sellout of 42,612 packing Rutgers Stadium to see if the hype was true.

The game wasn't exactly artistic -- Rutgers did not score an offensive touchdown -- but it did lend hope. The victory was the program's first over a Big Ten team since 1991. Since then there have been 46 victories, 16 of them over Navy, Temple or I-AA schools. During the Schiano regime, Rutgers has lost to Buffalo and Villanova.

So, go ahead Rutgers, celebrate.

"I can't speak for any of the teams that come before but this is the biggest win since I've been here," quarterback Ryan Hart said after the game. "This is the kind of victory Coach Schiano has been talking about since he got here ... It's so big for the program."

The love is hitting all at once. Kicker Jeremy Ito (special teams) and defensive lineman (Ryan Neill) were selected Big East players of the week. The Knights received a vote in the AP Top 25.

A 6-0 start going into the Oct. 23 game at Pittsburgh isn't a pipe dream. Rutgers gets I-AA New Hampshire (which lost its starting quarterback to injury) this week. A modest 2-0 start would be the first since 1994.

That game is followed by hapless Kent State. There are then consecutive trips to Syracuse and Vanderbilt (outscored by a combined 82-6 in their first games) followed by a home game against Temple.

It's probably a good sign for Rutgers that the upset quality of its season opener was debatable. Unranked Michigan State was only a six-point favorite and had lost a raft of talent from 2003.

The early season is becoming known for its lack of shockers. Form is holding all over the country. The AP Top 25 is 20-0 so far and just completed its first undefeated full weekend (17-0) since 1996.

The only upset that qualifies as major so far is Florida Atlantic's overtime victory at Hawaii that ended at 4:11 a.m. Sunday morning. The Warriors lost to a I-AA team that didn't exist five years ago.

To a certain extent the major powers have been warned, Schiano said. The MAC is 1-10 overall in non-conference games a year after enjoying its best season ever in terms of national upsets.

"MAC teams have been beating some real good football teams," Schiano said. "Everybody realizes that now. I think kids see Northern Illinois knocking off Maryland."

Things change slowly when you're trying to find your way. To hasten the process, the former Miami defensive coordinator has brought a bit of South Florida with him. Any former letter winner has a field pass waiting for him to any home game. It looked a bit like Miami's sideline Saturday with letter winners from as far back as 40 years ago showing up to clog the sidelines.

Minus the national championship rings, bling-bling, posses and NFL superstars on the sideline, yeah, it was just like Miami. But you've got to start somewhere.

Among the sellout crowd celebrating the big win was alum James Gandolfini. You probably know him better as Tony Soprano.

"There is a buzz in the state," Schiano said. "The state of New Jersey was on fire on Saturday. I don't think you should be afraid of that (success)."