Detroit — Rutgers loves Big Ten country, making big plays on both sides of the ball to defeat North Carolina, 40-21, Friday night at Ford Field in the Quick Lane Bowl before an announced crowd of 23,876.
Gary Nova closed out his Rutgers' career in style, throwing for 184 yards and 2 TDs, a 34-yard TD toss to Andre Patton on the game's opening series and a 34-yard TD strike to Andrew Turzilli to open up a 30-7 third quarter cushion, answering North Carolina's first score.
Rutgers (8-5), which completed its first season in the Big Ten, also piled up 340 rushing yards, led by bowl MVP Josh Hicks' 202 yards on 19 carries. His teammate Robert Martin ran for 100 yards on 19 carries, including TD runs of 8 and 28.
"We feel we're a good one-two punch with me and Robert and we couldn't have done it without our offensive line," said Hicks, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound freshman. "They created big holes for us all night and we hit them. I just wanted to be patient, wait for my line to create a lane and I was able to hit a hole and it all worked out good.
"I felt our defense showed up tonight and did a great job. They practice hard every day and it all paid off tonight for us."
Rutgers' defense set the tone, forcing two first-half turnovers — both fumbles — and blocking a 31-yard field goal. Senior strong safety Lorenzo Waters was the key, recovering both fumbles and blocked the field goal.
Rutgers' defense also did a good job on North Carolina dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams who threw for 276 yards and 2 TDs and rushed for 98 and two more scores in a 45-20 win over Duke earlier this season.
"We practiced hard in practice, fast and violent so that carried over into this game," said sophomore linebacker Steve Longa, who had nine tackles and forced a fumble leading to Martin's first TD run for a 20-0 lead. "We just played for each other and played with a lot of energy. There's a lot of seniors on this team that deserved to go out with a W. The last two years we haven't done anything in a bowl game (losses to Virginia Tech and Notre Dame) and this was our opportunity. We wanted to send them out with a ring that says champion on it and that's what we did.
"Our defense likes to stop the run, make big plays and create turnovers and two was very huge, gave our offense the opportunity to score points so it was important to get those fumbles."
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora agreed.
"Offensively, if we just don't turn the ball over," said Fedora, "and we turned it over twice early in the game and it killed whatever momentum we got. So, we shoot ourselves in the foot from the very beginning of the game and then you don't give your defense any help early on and so they get worn down and had a hard time stopping their running game."
Rutgers scored on the game's opening series with Nova's 34-yard TD pass to Patton to cap off a 75-yard drive.
"Our whole game plan was to just get up early, keep executing and we came out and did exactly what we wanted to do," said Patton. "The running game is so important because if we run the ball well, then that will open up the passing game and I felt like if we do that we could just exploit their whole defense."
The turning point of the game came late in the opening quarter when North Carolina's Damien Washington blocked a punt to give the Tar Heels a short field to work with at the 30. They advanced inside the five, but on fourth down holder Jacob Kraut was tackled short of a first down on a fake field goal.
Then, Nova directed a 91-yard scoring drive to open up a 14-0 lead, first finding Big Ten first-team receiver Leonte Carroo for 23 yards to Rutgers' 35 to give the Scarlet Knights breathing room, then Hicks busted loose for 18 yards near midfield, ultimately leading to his 21-yard TD run with 13:37 left in the half to cap off the seven-play drive.
Rutgers' defense came up big once again when North Carolina receiver Romar Morris fumbled after a hit by Longa near midfield and Waters came up with the ball.
On the first play following the turnover, Nova found Patton for 19 yards to the 30 and Martin followed with four straight rushing plays, scoring on an 8-yard run on third and one for a 20-0 cushion with 9:08 left in the half.
Again, Williams moved the ball deep into Rutgers' territory, only to come up empty again when Waters blocked Thomas Moore's 31-yard attempt.
Then, Nova guided Rutgers to one final drive before the half. He connected with tight end Tyler Kroft for 22 yards to North Carolina's 26, but his pass for Patton in the left corner of the end zone tipped off his hands and the Knights had to settle for Kyle Federico's 19-yard field goal with 11 seconds left for a 23-0 halftime lead.
Williams finally got the Tar Heels on the scoreboard on their opening drive of the second half, scoring on a 1-yard TD run.
But, Rutgers answered North Carolina's TD with one of its own when Nova lofted the ball over the outstretched arm of defensive back Brian Walker and into the hands of Turzilli in the left corner of the end zone for a 30-7 lead.
"I just ran a corner route and Gary threw me a good ball and I just made the play," Turzilli said. "That was a big drive for us. They came down and scored on us and we definitely needed to put the ball in the end zone to keep the momentum going."
Nova then showed his running ability, scrambling for a 15-yard run on the final play of the third quarter that led to Martin's second TD run, a 28-yard score with 14:11 left for a 30-point lead.
Williams (15 carries, 51 yards) scored on the 1-yard run and completed 25-of-37 for 198 yards, including a 7-yard TD pass to Jack Tabb for the Tar Heels (6-7).