JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For 24 hours last week, the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl was on shaky ground.
Texas A&M had withdrawn from the annual game after it didn’t have enough scholarship players to safely field a team. Rutgers stepped in as a late replacement, saving the game from being canceled for the first time in the game’s history.
It didn’t matter that the Scarlet Knights were under .500 and hadn’t practiced in close to a month. The game was going on.
And for Jacksonville, that’s a very good thing.
Friday morning at 11, the 77th edition of the game kicks off at TIAA Bank Field between Wake Forest (10-3) and Rutgers (5-7), the warmup to a full day of college football action that also features the College Football Playoff semifinals.
“We really appreciate how aggressively the Gator Bowl fought to keep the game going. Our players, we met with them when Texas A&M canceled. And they said that we want to play a game, but we want to play in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida,” Demon Deacons coach Dave Clawson said. “We don’t want to go anywhere else. This was a reward for a great season, and if we’re not going to play in the Gator Bowl, then if we finish 10-3, so be it, but we want to play in the Gator Bowl.”
One player who is happy that the game materialized is Scarlet Knights receiver Isaiah Washington, a Trinity Christian graduate and lone Jacksonville player on Rutgers. He said the excitement for this game is significant.
“Everybody here is on board. You know, it’s not every day you get a second chance at your season. So, obviously everybody would be chomping at the bit at it. Excitement, that’s just the one word that comes to mind when I think about my teammates and this bowl game. It’s just everybody was really, really excited. And we are ready to play.”
The big question — can Rutgers, with less than a week of practice, slow down one of the country’s highest-powered offenses? The Scarlet Knights didn’t qualify for a bowl game with their record. They got an assist by virtue of the classroom and having the highest Academic Progress Rate of the five-win teams. That APR is what gave Rutgers the right of first refusal to accept the late bid to the Gator Bowl. And that alone is something to be proud of, Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano said.
“We didn’t win enough games to be bowl-eligible, and we own that,” he said. “What we need to know is the work they did in the classroom is what allowed them to be first up when an opportunity opened, so I tell them all the time. There are no coincidences. We talk a lot about you reap what you sow.”
The Demon Deacons averaged 469.1 yards and 41.2 points per game, totals that rank 10th and fifth in the nation, respectively. Wake Forest played for the ACC championship against Pittsburgh. The Demon Deacons started a program-best 8-0 and climbed to No. 10 in the country.
“Honestly it was just a load of excitement, you know. Really, really excited,” Washington said. “Opportunity to play in front of Jacksonville’s home crowd and you know, same people that watching play in high school it’s just going to be a really fun time.”
77th TaxSlayer Gator Bowl
Wake Forest (10-3) vs. Rutgers (5-7)
When: Friday, 11 a.m.
Where: TIAA Bank Field
Must be purchased on day of the game. It is available in Lots A, E, J and X. Lots open at 7 a.m.
Are available online from as low as $17. They can be purchased here. All game tickets are mobile. Walk-up ticket sales open at 8 a.m.
The game will be shown on ESPN.