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The Rutgers backfield that almost was

The Scarlet Knights had commitments from some of the Big Ten’s current best running backs, but they didn’t stick.

Penn State v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Maryland football will seek its fifth win of 2017 on Saturday when it visits Rutgers in Piscataway (not the Bronx). The Terps are favored by one point, but if the Scarlet Knights had been a little luckier with a couple of recent running back recruits, the line would probably look much different.

Rutgers runs for over 150 yards a game, which is good. Senior running back Gus Edwards has 521 yards and six scores on the ground this season, and he’s teamed with senior Robert Martin and freshman Raheem Blackshear to form a quietly impressive rotation. While it’s not the “Presidential Backfield,” there could be a Senate seat or Governor term in its future.

But it’s hard for Scarlet Knights fans to look at the Big Ten leaderboards and not wonder what could have been.

See, Saquon Barkley was a longtime Rutgers pledge.

Yes, really.

Barkley committed to the Scarlet Knights in 2013, at the start of his high school junior season. The native of Whitehall, Pennsylvania—which is a shade under 70 miles from Piscataway—grew up a Rutgers fan. But around National Signing Day 2014, those plans changed.

Rutgers was coming off a 6-7 season, their first and only in the American Athletic Conference. But even though a move to the Big Ten was on the horizon, everyone seemed to lose faith in head coach Kyle Flood. Thirteen players decommitted from Rutgers’ 2014 class, as Flood effectively pulled scholarship offers to commits visiting other schools. Barkley, who was in the following class, flipped to the Nittany Lions some two weeks after signing day. He remained committed to Penn State and James Franklin for the rest of his recruitment, while coincidentally rising in prospect rankings across the board.

Barkley’s first time facing the Scarlet Knights was in his third collegiate game ... and he slapped 195 rushing yards on them. Now a junior, he’s the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy. He’s become an all-purpose monster—801 yards on the ground, 471 more on 36 receptions and 378 yards on kick returns—and has Penn State squarely in the national picture.

Jonathan Taylor got away, too.

Rutgers hired Chris Ash after the 2015 season, and he’s done a relatively solid job of keeping premier New Jersey talent in-state. Taylor pledged to the Scarlet Knights in May 2016, but the Salem, New Jersey, native’s recruiting profile grew during an impressive summer of camps. Rutgers didn’t shoot itself in the foot the way it had a few years prior, but it still couldn’t overcome the bigger schools.

Wisconsin’s history with New Jersey running backs is absurd: the Badgers hit home runs with Ron Dayne two decades ago and with Corey Clement more recently. They sold Taylor on continuing that tradition, and he committed to Wisconsin almost exactly a year ago. As a high three-star prospect, he was far from a sure thing, but the potential was clear.

To call Taylor’s first couple months in Madison a “breakout” would be underselling it. He’s fourth in the country and first in the Big Ten with 1,185 rushing yards in his first eight games (including 126 against Maryland on Oct. 21). In a related story, Wisconsin is undefeated. Rutgers is not.

Hindsight is weird, and plenty of credit for these guys’ success goes to the coaching staffs that developed them, but ............... damn.

It’s still probably safe to say that a Scarlet Knights backfield with either Barkley or Taylor in it would be among the most formidable in the Big Ten. A backfield with both of them would have to be the best in the country. Instead, well, hope you like Gus Edwards.

If Ash’s rebuild continues progressing, he’ll court and develop a superstar before long. But until then, the “what-if” cloud will continue to hover over Piscataway.