Inside the wild week that took Rutgers from vacation mode to the Gator Bowl

The day began like any other in December for a college football program shut out of bowl season.

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano sat in his home office, fully immersed in recruiting. Scarlet Knights quarterback Noah Vedral relaxed at home in Nebraska. Vedral and his teammates had scattered after exams, traveling to places as far from campus as Sweden (offensive lineman Sam Vretman and defensive lineman Robin Jutwreten) and Australia (punter Adam Korsak). They didn’t expect to return until mid-January.

“I just kind of put the season to bed,” Schiano told ESPN.

Then, around midday on Dec. 22, ESPN and others reported that Texas A&M would withdraw from the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl because of COVID-19 cases and other issues impacting its roster. Wake Forest suddenly didn’t have an opponent in the sixth-oldest bowl, played every year since 1946 in Jacksonville, Florida.

Schiano heard about Texas A&M’s situation and jokingly texted Kevin MacConnell, his chief of staff, asking, “Do you want to go bowling?” MacConnell and Schiano both had scheduled separate family trips to Florida around the holidays.

“We’re both planning on being there anyway. Why not now?” MacConnell texted back, adding, “But I’m thinking they’re going to shut the game down and they’re not going to be able to get somebody.”

The lighthearted exchange continued until MacConnell received a message from A.J. Edds, the Big Ten’s associate director for sports administration and the league’s bowl liaison.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this could happen,'” MacConnell said.

By that night, it became clear that Rutgers, despite a 5-7 record, would have the chance to go bowling for the first time since the 2014 season. The official invitation came the following day, and the Rutgers staff and players, who had scrambled back to campus, on Tuesday boarded a quickly arranged charter flight to Jacksonville, where Friday it will play in the most prestigious bowl game in team history (11 a.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App).

“I just remember being like, ‘This is crazy, this doesn’t feel real,'” Vedral said. “I literally couldn’t stop thinking about it all day. How would we do it? This is so cool. I’ve never heard of this ever happening.”

ESPN spoke with players, coaches and administrators at both Rutgers and Wake Forest about how the most improbable matchup of the bowl season came together in only nine days, and how Rutgers was able to mobilize so quickly.

— Adam Rittenberg, Heather Dinich and Andrea Adelson

‘The third time’s a charm’

Rutgers had hoped to play its way into a bowl by beating Maryland in the regular-season finale, but the Scarlet Knights lost 40-16 at home on Nov. 27. MacConnell and Schiano continued to monitor the bowl landscape that night, mindful that if there weren’t enough 6-6 teams to fill slots, Rutgers likely would be the first replacement among 5-7 teams, because it had the highest multi-year Academic Progress Rate score. But all the spots filled up.

“We obviously were disappointed at the end of the season,” Vedral said. “It just leaves a really kind of bitter taste in your mouth. You’re sick for your seniors. You’re just like, ‘Damn, I really wish I could play one more game with these guys.'”

Even after the bowl selections, Rutgers heard that one participating team from outside the Big Ten might pull out, creating a replacement opportunity. But the team ended up agreeing to play.

“This was like our third tease at a bowl game,” MacConnell said. “I guess the third time’s a charm.”

With finals and football seemingly done, Vedral, the oldest of five, had returned home to Wahoo, Nebraska, for the holidays.

“A long way from New Brunswick,” New Jersey, he said.

Vedral was in nearby Omaha, doing Christmas activities with his family, when he received Schiano’s text to the entire team informing them they might have one more game to play.

The quarterback stopped in his tracks and told his family, “Guys, we’re being considered to play in the Gator Bowl somehow.”

Upon learning a bowl invite was possible, Schiano first assessed whether his players actually wanted to play. Before the coach could conduct a straw poll of key players, quarterback Johnny Langan texted Schiano: “Gator Bowl. Let’s go!”

Schiano reached out to 10-12 players to measure their interest. Other than those who had undergone surgeries after the regular season, everyone was ready to play.

“There’s nothing worse than having a group of guys that don’t want to do it that are doing it for you, that’s like pulling teeth,” Schiano said. “I had a sense that it would be well-received if I asked and sure enough, it was.”

During the afternoon of Dec. 22, word began to spread throughout the roster. The group text chain among Rutgers’ quarterbacks “obviously [cranked up] a little bit,” Vedral said.

“Like, holy cow, guys, this could happen, they’re already considering us,” he said. “There was definitely a flurry of excitement. The phone started blowing up a whole bunch right after that.”

Before he had reached out to the players, Schiano’s first call went to Will Gilkison, Rutgers’ longtime associate athletic director for football. Gilkison oversees logistics for the program, including charter flights, which are normally scheduled months in advance, and become especially difficult to secure around the holidays.

“Do you really think we could do this?” Schiano remembered asking Gilkison. “He jokingly said, ‘We can do anything. That’s just what we do.’ I said, ‘Well, we might actually do this one.’ And he said, ‘You’re kidding.'”

Before getting official word that Rutgers was going to the Gator Bowl, Vedral began watching game film of Wake Forest on his school-issued iPad. Schiano, who is friends with Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson, had checked Wake’s scores throughout the season but hadn’t seen the Demon Deacons play.

Rutgers’ video crew and graduate assistants usually work one game ahead on opponents so cut-ups and scouting reports are ready for the coaches as soon as they need it. This time, the preparation for everyone began simultaneously.

“I looked at their stats first and I saw they were fifth in the nation in scoring, and said, ‘Oh, this should be exciting,'” Schiano said with a laugh. “I threw on one game against [North] Carolina. It was like 55-52.”

‘You don’t know who you’re playing’

On Dec. 21, Wake Forest athletic director John Currie woke up early to drive to North Carolina’s Sugar Mountain to pick up his 12-year-old daughter from ski camp. Currie thought he would have a light day. Then, on his drive up, he got word from Boston College AD Pat Kraft that there were COVID-19 issues with their men’s basketball program, and they wouldn’t be able to play their scheduled game with Wake Forest the following day.

Little did Currie know that would not be the only COVID-19-related phone call he would have that morning.

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At 9:24 a.m., Currie received a screenshot of a tweet showing that Texas A&M was having COVID-19 issues. He quickly called Clawson, then got on the phone with Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork, while scrambling to return to Winston-Salem.

“[Bjork] was up front that they had problems and were still trying to figure it out,” Currie said. “They were waiting for more test results, but they would not have them until [the next] morning. Going through [COVID] last year, you know when somebody calls you and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got a problem,’ you start thinking about what that means. If they’re not going to be able to play, the worst thing is if it drags out for a week or so and they can’t play.”

Texas A&M had more than positive cases, as injuries, opt-outs and transfers made it difficult for the Aggies to field enough players. Despite initial discussions about possibly delaying the game, it soon became clear that kickoff would remain Dec. 31 as officials wanted to keep the slot as the lead-in to the CFP games.

By Wednesday morning, Currie had spoken at length with Clawson, Gator Bowl president/CEO Greg McGarity, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips and ACC associate commissioner Michael Strickland. He also talked to colleagues at LSU and Kansas State after reports surfaced about COVID-19 issues within the Tigers program, and at Washington State and Miami after the Hurricanes entered COVID protocols in advance of the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.

At 12:01 p.m. on Dec. 22, Bjork informed Currie that Texas A&M would be unable to play. Currie and Clawson met with Wake Forest’s captains and asked them if they still wanted to push forward. They said yes, as long as a new team was selected before Christmas. By the time Currie returned to his office, he had messages from Northern Illinois AD Sean Frazier and Illinois coach Bret Bielema, and interest from Coastal Carolina, Utah State and South Alabama. While Currie was on a videoconference call with the media, he got a text from Utah State expressing its interest in playing a second bowl game.

The Division I football oversight committee would ultimately decide parameters for Wake Forest’s replacement opponent. Reports surfaced that Rutgers was interested in playing, but Currie didn’t know whether the oversight committee would follow existing rules and rank 5-7 teams by their APR scores, or allow conferences and bowls to make the decision.

Around 11 a.m. on Dec. 23, Currie heard that the committee would stick to its policy and use APR scores. The top four 5-7 teams in order of APR were: Rutgers, Texas, Illinois and Syracuse. Wake Forest’s coaches had already trashed their Texas A&M game plan, and had started watching film of seven potential opponents.

While awaiting confirmation, Currie told Clawson there was a good chance Wake Forest would be playing Rutgers or Illinois. Clawson said he would start watching the Rutgers-Illinois game from Oct. 30, a 20-14 Rutgers win.

“The whole idea with bowl games is you want to work ahead and really get your game plan done early, so that bowl practices are a little bit more relaxing, you’re not working 14-hour days,” Clawson said. “I had a schedule that our coaches are going to be out of the office by 6 on Christmas Eve, and we were only planning on working for like six hours on Christmas.

“And then you don’t know who you’re playing.”

‘Get ready to work’

At 2:19 p.m. on Dec. 23, the Rutgers football Twitter account posted a video of a man carrying a Scarlet Knights bag into a bowling alley. The message: Game on.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘I should go work out,'” Vedral said. “I live on the edge of town, so there’s some gravel roads that still had grip that weren’t too slippery from the fog and the mist and frost.

“I ran some dynamic warm-ups, some sprints and a little bit of conditioning on the gravel roads.”

Gilkison, MacConnell and the rest of Schiano’s support staff immediately started on logistics. Securing charter planes proved to be the toughest task. Gilkison eventually found two 150-seat aircrafts: one for the team and the other for support staff and administrators.

The Gator Bowl would provide hotel rooms, a practice location and other necessities initially reserved for Texas A&M. But Rutgers still had to figure out how to transport players, staff, families and others, and ensure there would be enough available staff for video, athletic training and other departments.

“You throw in Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, most of us worked those days because you had to,” MacConnell said. “You couldn’t say, ‘We’ll pick this up again on the 26th,’ because there would have been too much time lost. It was just condensing what normally would be a month into six or seven days.”

Rutgers had four players returning from international destinations.

“Three of the four made it back,” Schiano said. “A kid in France was trying to get back, but to get into the United States, you’ve got to test [for COVID-19] and he tested positive. That stunk.

“I love that kid, he’s on a family vacation to France, and he’s like, ‘I’m coming back.'”

By Christmas night, players had returned to campus.

Schiano reinstituted some policies Rutgers had used during previous COVID spikes. Rutgers held team meetings in the large recruiting pavilion at SHI Stadium, and staggered position meetings and team meals. Schiano is taking a “2020 light” approach.

“You kind of have to get out of relax-mode, vacation-mode, and get ready to go to work,” Vedral said. “Being in the facilities, being with your teammates and your friends, it definitely helps snap you back into, ‘Hey, we’ve got a job to do.’ It’s fun to be with the guys, too, at this time of year.”

Wake Forest’s coaching staff hit the ground running, putting in far more hours than Clawson ever intended.

“It becomes like a normal game week, you have one week to get ready,” Clawson said. “I literally worked 14 hours on Christmas Day. I went to Christmas mass, got into work before 9 and was there until 11:30 at night. Half the staff did, too.”

The extra work is worth it for Wake Forest, which gets a chance to complete a historic season that included its first top-10 ranking and its first division title since 2006. Bowl teams such as NC State (Holiday), SMU (Fenway) and East Carolina (Military) never found replacement opponents.

“We’re grateful that we got a game,” Clawson said. “Our kids really wanted to play.”

Other than five incoming transfers, the Gator Bowl will mark the first postseason appearance for Scarlet Knights players. But it’s not the first for Schiano, who guided Rutgers to six bowls between 2005 and 2011. Schiano takes a player-centric approach with bowls, which includes bringing everyone who practiced during the season. The group included Robin Jutwreten, who medically retired after last season and has been serving as a student assistant.

MacConnell, who worked at Rutgers during Schiano’s first stint at coach, said those experiences helped this time.

“It would have been difficult to pull it off,” he said. “At least five of us were with him the first time, so that was key. We know what he wants, how he wants it set up, how he wants the day to go.”

Practices this week have been a bit lighter, as Schiano understands his players have been away from the field while remaining in good enough shape to play. He likely will rotate a large number of players in the game, mindful of the warm weather.

But make no mistake: Rutgers is playing to win, especially after what the program has been through the past two seasons.

“I got hired, they didn’t pick me, I picked them, and then COVID hits three months later,” Schiano said. “You talk about having to really trust each other when there was no history there. It was WebEx meetings and then our Big Ten schedule gets canceled [in August 2020]. You’re talking about some things, you go your whole career and that doesn’t happen.

“So I was really excited to have one more time with these older guys. No matter how we play, we’re a closer team as a result of this week.”

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