This is the kind of game that we all grew accustomed to during the Brian Kelly years. Not just because those teams played a lot of them, but because these kind of games so rarely ended in disappointment. You can count on one hand the number of games versus ranked opponents that Kelly lost in the Nip. One finger actually, and it happened six years to the day from Saturday.
November 17th, 2007 #5 West Virginia, and their two headed monster of Pat White and Steve Slaton rolled into town, and then rolled up a big lead, before the Bearcats fought back and made a game of it in the fourth quarter. But UC lost that game, though it primed that team for the runs through the conference in 2008. And that decisive game against Pitt which marks the last truly big game to be contested in Nippert.
Last year's biggest game(s), and 2010's as well, were played five miles from home, in that soulless concrete bowl down on the river. It has been so long that the 2008 season, and all of its requisite conquests, seem like little more than a distant memory, a faint impression.
Perhaps the strangest thing about this game, to me, are the parallels between this year and 2006. Then Rutgers came to Nippert hoping to go to 5-0 in Big East play for the first time ever. With a chance at the programs first Big East crown ever, and the first conference title since 1974. A win for Rutgers sets up a winner takes all game with the conference's pre season favorite, West Virginia, in the final game of the season.
Now Rutgers enters at 4-0 in Big East play, trying to get to 5-0 in the Big East for the first time. The Big East championship is in sight, as is a BCS birth. They are also trying to set up a winner take all show down in the final game of the season with pre season favorite, Louisville.
More than all that this Rutgers team is built just like that 2006 team. They play great defense and special teams, and count on their offense not to mess things up with turnovers; and surely I haven't been the only person to see a little Mike Teel in the play of Gary Nova? Nor a little Ray Rice in Jawan Jamison?
As for the Bearcats, I don't really need to rehash that this team, like 2006's let some close games get away from them. Or that large swaths of the fan base pinned the losses on the underclassmen quarterback, and favored a senior who had next to no game experience before drawing the start against Rutgers. I am pretty sure that those insights have already been made.
It is staggering how similar the 2006 contest is with this one. Not because the teams are really that similar, though there are some interesting coincidences. But the context of this game mirrors the build up to the 2006 in surprising ways, even if the insights gleaned from them mean next to nothing (and they do mean nothing)