PISCATAWAY, N.J. — When Isaih Pacheco, a sophomore running back at Rutgers, burst past the line of scrimmage, slipped an Ohio State linebacker’s grasp and raced to the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown, it set off a New Year’s Eve-like celebration.
An air horn blew, confetti rained and a cannon shot boomed.
The Rutgers crowd, as outnumbered by visiting fans as its team was outmanned, erupted with a roar. And Matt Alaimo, a sophomore tight end, was so enthusiastic that he knocked Pacheco on his behind in the end zone with a flying chest bump.
The touchdown brought Rutgers within 14 points late in the first quarter, leaving a feisty group of fans in a corner of the end zone to bust out an R-U chant. (Ohio State fans showed their Midwestern manners by not responding: R-U kidding?)
It was one of several unexpected delights on Saturday for Rutgers, whose players were almost ecstatic that second-ranked Ohio State could administer nothing worse than a 56-21 beating. (The Buckeyes were a 52.5-point favorite.) The freshman quarterback Johnny Langan, doing the math in his head, correctly deduced that the three offensive touchdowns Rutgers managed were the most the Buckeyes had allowed in a game all season.
What’s more, Pacheco’s touchdown was the first by Rutgers against Ohio State since 2015. (For the record, that was when Andre Patton caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Hayden Rettig with 13 seconds remaining after Rutgers had allowed the first 49 points.)
It all served as a blessed masking agent for the current state of Rutgers football, which is 2-8 this season, lost its 19th consecutive Big Ten game on Saturday and is limping toward the end of another desultory season after its coach, Chris Ash, was fired in late September.
And yet that only begins to describe the depths of a program whose athletic department is swimming in red ink, was criticized this year in a report as unprepared to enter the Big Ten and seems to encounter a crisis du jour.
The latest came last month when abuse charges were leveled against the university’s wife-and-husband softball coaches, including that players were forced to run sprints because the team went $6 over its budget during a meal at a Cracker Barrel.
Athletic Director Patrick Hobbs then berated the NJ.com reporter who broke the story.
Hobbs, for this article, emulated the William the Silent statue that sits in the middle of campus. He declined to comment.
Hobbs, who fired Ash less than two years after awarding him a five-year extension, has been occupied lately with the search for a new football coach. All signs point to a return by Greg Schiano, who brought Rutgers to respectability in a previous stint, including an 11-2 record in 2006 when the Scarlet Knights climbed to No. 7 in the country.
Schiano left after the 2011 season to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but lasted just two years. He has since worked as a defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots and Ohio State, but chose not to coach this season.
Schiano has met with the Rutgers board of governors, according to NJ.com, arriving with a set of demands that included a new practice facility. The website also reported that Schiano met with Phil Murphy, the governor of New Jersey. Ohio State’s athletic director, Gene Smith, said on Saturday that he was asked by Hobbs in August if Ohio State had turned up any evidence that Schiano, when he was an assistant at Penn State, had been aware of sexual abuse committed by Jerry Sandusky.
Smith said he told Hobbs “there was nothing there.”
The former Penn State assistant Mike McQueary said in a 2015 court deposition that another assistant had told him Schiano witnessed Sandusky assaulting a boy in the shower. Schiano has denied knowing about any abuse by Sandusky, but protests by fans over McQueary’s deposition prompted Tennessee to withdraw a job offer to Schiano in 2017.
Smith, the Ohio State athletic director, said it was possible for Rutgers to be competitive in the Big Ten, in the way Northwestern and Minnesota have been in the last two seasons. “This is an environment where it can be done,” he said. “It’s just finding the right leader.” It would also require funding the maximum five strength and conditioning coaches and having a robust social media department to help recruiting.
Of course, with Rutgers, it always comes back to money.
The move five years ago to the Big Ten was seen as a direct line to the big time, but a report released earlier this year by the university panned Rutgers for underselling to its students, faculty, alumni and state government how much it would cost for its teams to be competitive. (Unlike most athletic programs in the Big Ten, Rutgers relies heavily on subsidies from the university. In the 2017-18 academic year, Rutgers allocated $33 million to athletics — more than three times the amount of any other Big Ten school. That included nearly $12 million in student fees. Rutgers has also taken $48 million from the Big Ten against future TV revenue distributions.)
The report also criticized the state of the Rutgers football stadium, noting that concrete was cracked and leaking, exterior walls were painted different shades of red and there was no deferred maintenance program in place. On Saturday, fans wanting to use bathrooms were lined up for portable toilets outside.
“It’s a complete mess,” said Mark Killingsworth, a Rutgers economics professor and longtime critic of athletic department spending. “I really don’t think that the problem — the major problem, anyway — is that the football team isn’t doing well. Someday the football team will get better. I think the real problems are management, finances and organization. They’ll spend the last student dollar on the campus in order to come up with the money to get what they need.”
Killingsworth said he understood the realities of major college sports, but that Rutgers’s athletic program should work harder raising funds — at $7 million, it is at the bottom of the conference there, too.
“As long as it can self-finance itself, I see nothing wrong,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s a monster. You’ve got to control it.”
It makes one wonder how Rutgers can ever compete with teams like Ohio State, whose athletic department budget of $221 million last year was more than twice Rutgers’s at $93 million. When Saturday’s game was over, the disparity was just as evident when the teams walked to midfield to shake hands, one resembling an Ivy League squad, the other an N.F.L. team.
One Ohio State player drew a big crowd: Jonah Jackson.
A senior offensive lineman, Jackson spent four years at Rutgers, leaving after last season as a graduate transfer with athletic eligibility left. He starts at left guard for the undefeated Buckeyes.
“The big difference is expectations,” said Jackson, who exchanges texts each Saturday with the Rutgers senior tackle Zach Venesky in which they wish each other luck. “I definitely feel for my guys. It’s been tough for them this season.”
After going through about 20 hugs from his former teammates, Jackson took off his jacket and joined a group of Rutgers offensive linemen for a group photo. He beamed. They smiled, too. Their expressions were little different from the words one of them had when he pulled Jackson tight: “So glad you got out, man.”