The 21st-ranked Scarlet Knights sure looked ready to check out early, though, in a lifeless 27-6 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday.
Though Rutgers (9-2, 5-1 Big East) still managed to clinch a share of its first conference title after No. 19 Louisville was stunned at home by Connecticut, the Scarlet Knights head into a showdown with the Cardinals next Thursday reeling.
"It (stinks) to lose, but we still have something to play for," Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova said.
Even if it was the Panthers (5-6, 2-4) who performed like the team with everything on the line.
Pitt's defense swarmed the Scarlet Knights all afternoon. Nova completed just 18 of 37 passes for 157 yards with a touchdown and an interception and left briefly in first half after getting slammed to the ground on his right (throwing) shoulder.
"Their defensive linemen are really good," Nova said. "They put a lot of pressure on me, and we really didn't execute well enough in protection on their pass rush to make a difference."
The Scarlet Knights came in the Big East's biggest surprise, rising to the cusp of the school's first Bowl Championship Series berth despite losing program architect Greg Schiano to the NFL last winter.
First-year coach Kyle Flood stressed his team would not be distracted by an eventful week in which the program announced it was heading to the Big Ten in 2014, though the Scarlet Knights appeared to have their minds on other things while falling into an early 21-0 deficit.
"I didn't hear any of the talk about anything (other than the game)," Flood said. "To me, we had a focused football team coming in here, but we just didn't execute on the football field."
There were no such issues for the Panthers, who continued their maddening inconsistency while keeping their hopes for a fifth straight bowl appearance alive.
Tino Sunseri passed for 227 yards and two touchdowns in his last home game and fellow senior Ray Graham ran for 113 yards and a score as the Panthers beat a ranked opponent for the second time this season thanks to some words of inspiration from the 18 players taking their final bow at Heinz Field.
"We just told (the underclassmen) to leave it out on the field," said Graham, who moved into third on the school's all-time rushing list. "If you're not ready to play, stay inside this locker room. That's one of those attitudes that we have."
The Panthers have alternated two-game losing streaks and two-game winning streaks all fall, leading first-year coach Paul Chryst to joke he hoped the pattern would continue over the final two weeks, allowing the Panthers to play beyond Dec. 1.
It shouldn't be an issue if Pitt can take the intensity it showed during an emotional Senior Day to South Florida next week.
Chryst began the afternoon hugging each of the seniors during pregame introductions, a sign how of hard he's worked to restore a sense of trust between the players and the program after Pitt went through four coaches in a span of 14 months, culminating with Chryst's hiring in January.
The seniors believe Pitt is heading in the right direction, and then went out and showed it by having little trouble with the Scarlet Knights in the final game between the two teams for the foreseeable future with Pitt heading to the ACC next fall.
Pitt outgained Rutgers 365-207, won the field position battle and controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage after finding its footing in the second quarter.
"We put it together today," wide receiver Mike Shanahan said. "I don't think we've played 60 minutes like that all season."
Certainly not on defense.
The Scarlet Knights had the ball eight times in the first half, and punted eight times. Nova never got comfortable in the blustery conditions and Pitt smothered whichever Rutgers back happened to carry the ball.
"If you watched Pitt over the course of the year, you saw that they were capable of playing really good on offense and defense," Rutgers safety Duron Harmon said. "They beat up on Virginia Tech and should have beat Notre Dame, so we knew it wasn't going to be easy coming in here."
Sunseri hit Shanahan for a 16-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter to put the Panthers up and Graham made it 14-0 on a 1-yard touchdown plunge before the Panthers showed just how far they've come under Chryst's direction during a flawless 2-minute drill late in the half.
Taking over at the Pitt 45 with 1:19 to go, Sunseri directed the Panthers 55 yards in nine plays, the final one a perfect strike to Ed Tinker from 13 yards out that put the Panthers up 21-0 at the break.
Kevin Harper tacked on a 39-yard field goal early in the third quarter to make it 24-0. Rutgers finally got on board on a 17-yard touchdown pass from Nova to Brandon Coleman late in the third quarter but the 2-point conversion failed and Rutgers never threatened to make it interesting.
The blowout left the Scarlet Knights plenty of time to ponder how things went wrong while getting a headstart on what will be a de facto Big East championship game at home on Thursday night.
"All the marbles are out there for us, and it's a short week," defensive tackle Scott Vallone said. "So, this is for everything. This is why you play football. Sure, we're disappointed, but we still have everything to play for Thursday night. And that has to be our focus."
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