Ray Rice started fast in the 2006 season and never slowed down. He rushed for 201 yards in Rutgers’ 21-16 win over North Carolina and he just kept going, rolling up 1,794 yards, fourth best in the nation, and earning Most Valuable Player honors in the Scarlet Knights’ 37-10 win over Kansas State in the Texas Bowl.
Rice carried the ball 24 times for 170 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown, in the victory over Kansas State. It was the first bowl victory in Rutgers’ history and Rice celebrated by wearing a white cowboy hat onto the stage as he accepted the MVP trophy.
“This was the big show,” Rice said. “Fifty-thousand people. When I walked out to the field tonight, I could feel the fire in my belly. When we lost to Arizona State (in the Insight.com Bowl) last year, I had an empty feeling in my stomach. This shows hard work pays off.”
Rutgers was one of the best stories of the 2006 season, finishing with an 11-2 record and climbing as high as seventh in the national rankings. Rice was a key performer in the Scarlet Knights’ success as he topped 100-yards rushing in 10 of the team’s games, including the Texas Bowl. His performance earned him the Maxwell Club’s 6th annual Tri-State Player of the Year Award.
Rice is a 5-9, 195-pound sophomore from New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School who originally planned to attend Syracuse but changed his mind when the Orangemen made a coaching change after the 2004 season. Rice enrolled at Rutgers instead and teamed with senior Brian Leonard – “my big brother,” Rice calls him — to give the Scarlet Knights a formidable one-two punch in the backfield.
“He’s my role model out there,” Rice said of Leonard. “To actually be playing with him is just the best. You’ve got a role model sitting there in front of you literally before you run a play. He just keeps motivating me. If I get tired, he’ll say, ‘Ray, let’s go. I need you by my side.’”
Rice had five 100-yard games as a freshman, but he really blossomed in the 2006 season when he earned second-team All-America honors from the Associated Press. In the opener, he had 31 carries for 201 yards against North Carolina, a performance that set the tone for the Scarlet Knights remarkable season.
Illinois coach Ron Zook was among those who marveled over Rice’s combination of quickness, instinct and power.
“It’s hard to get 200 yards in the air, much less on the ground,” Zook said. “The thing that probably stood out the most when I turned on the tape (of Rice) is you’d expect to see some long runs, breakaways and things like that. He would get eight (yards) there, 10 there, four there. He’ll cut back. He’s very elusive. He’s strong and has great balance.”
“Ray doesn’t lack for confidence,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “I don’t say that in any kind of boastful way. He believes in his abilities. He’s a confident young man, a mature young man. He came into this season feeling good about himself.”
Rice’s MVP performance helped the Scarlet Knights win the Texas Bowl. He said winning a bowl game would only fuel Rutgers’ rise as a national football power.
“We’ve tasted it, tasted the water and it’s a great feeling,” Rice said after the historic victory. “There will be more bowl games to come.”