PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Somewhere in the sea of red-clad bodies that spilled out onto the field at Rutgers Stadium was the most unlikely national title contender college football has seen — maybe ever.
Yes, Rutgers has arrived. Just ask Louisville, which got kicked right of the title scramble by the Scarlet Knights.
The program that once set the standard for futility jumped into that title picture Thursday night by rallying from a big deficit for a 28-25 victory over the third-ranked Cardinals.
On his second chance, Jeremy Ito kicked a tiebreaking 28-yard field goal with 13 seconds left and the second consecutive primetime showdown between Big East unbeatens went to No. 15 Rutgers (9-0, 4-0).
"This is the new Rutgers," said Leonard, the senior fullback who was a redshirt freshman on a 1-11 team. "This is a dream of mine."
Just a week ago, it was Louisville (8-1, 3-1) celebrating the biggest win in school history, a 44-34 victory over West Virginia that vaulted the Cardinals into the thick of the championship race.
This time, it was Rutgers' turn to party.
The Scarlet Knights shut out the high-scoring Cardinals in the second half, erased an 18-point deficit and got the ball with 5:28 left in the fourth quarter at their own 9.
"You don't come back like we did tonight unless you have believers," coach Greg Schiano said.
Leonard went 26 yards with a pass in the flats to get Rutgers into Louisville territory and Rice broke a 20-yard run to get into field-goal range. Ito missed a 33-yarder with 18 seconds left, but Louisville was offside and Ito got another shot — and it was perfect.
"It was just a bad kick," Ito said of his first try. "It was a funny game. You have to give credit to our defense."
The final play, appropriately, was a sack of Brian Brohm by a Rutgers' defense that proved worthy of the No. 2 ranking in the country.
"We were totally out of sync in the second half, and that can't happen," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "Some of our goals are still out there, that we can reach. We're going to need some help."
After the game, Rutgers fans flooded the field and swarmed the players. The 185-pound Ito got lifted right off the ground.
"It was a little scary at the end with the mob scene," Schiano said. "But it was fun. This is the way college football is supposed to be."
And the way it's never been at Rutgers. There are now four undefeated teams in the country — No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 Michigan, No. 14 Boise State and — it's probably hard for many to believe — Rutgers.
Rice, the Heisman Trophy candidate, yes the Scarlet Knights even have one of those, ran 22 times for 131 yards and two touchdowns.
Brohm, who looked like the Heisman contender last week, went 13-for-27 for 163 yards with a TD and an interception. He also was sacked five times, twice each by Jamel Meekins and Devraun Thompson.
When Schiano took over at Rutgers in 2001 the program was as bad as it got in college football, and it didn't get much better in the former Miami assistant's first few seasons.
The Scarlet Knights won three games in Schiano's first two years and 12 his first four, before finally turning it around last year with seven victories and a bowl bid.
This season, off to their best start 1976, the next step for the Scarlet Knights was to show if they could compete with the nation's best.
The answer: Absolutely.
Louisville jumped out to a 25-7 lead in the first half behind Brohm and a 100-yard kickoff return by JaJuan Spillman and it looked as if the Cardinals were on their way to a BCS boosting romp.
But laughingstocks no more, the Scarlet Knights came charging back to tie it in the fourth quarter behind speedy tailback Rice and a relentless pass rush.
Rutgers gave the 2,000 fans packed into the temporary stands behind the south end zone something to go crazy about when Kenny Britt reached high for a pass over the middle and broke free for a 67-yard reception right in their direction. Louisville's William Gay caught Britt from behind and stripped the ball, but it bounced right back to the Rutgers' receiver, who covered it at the 4.
And if that wasn't enough to swing momentum Rutgers' way, Rice's 4-yard TD sweep on the next play surely was. The 2-point conversion cut it to 25-22 with 4:42 left in the third quarter.
After struggling early to slow down Brohm and the No. 2 offense in the country, Meekins and the hard-rushing Scarlet Knights held the Cardinals without a first down for the first 26 minutes of the second half.
When Ito nailed a 46-yard field goal with 10:17 left in the fourth quarter, the game was tied at 25, the cannon behind the south end zone boomed and the record crowd was in a white-towel waving frenzy.
"They were an undefeated team so we knew it was going to be tough," Louisville running back Kolby Smith said, "and it was a home game for them and we heard it was going to be their biggest crowd ever. We just wanted to come in and execute. But tonight we didn't."
Students started lining up outside the stadium more than four hours before kickoff for the most important college football game in New Jersey since, well, maybe the first one was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869. Never before had Rutgers played in a game matching ranked teams.
Now the Scarlet Knights have won one and can start wondering where they will be ranked when the next Bowl Championship Series standings come out Sunday.
"Hopefully we go up," Rice said. "I'm just glad we won this game."