PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) -Don't count Mike Teel among the Rutgers players who may have to manufacture any enthusiasm for playing in Saturday's International Bowl instead of a higher-profile bowl game.
Rutgers' junior quarterback used the recent five-week layoff to finally allow his injured throwing hand to fully heal, and he's anxious to take it out for a spin.
``This will probably be the healthiest I've been since the second game of the year. I'm excited at the opportunity,'' Teel said.
Teel's teammates bravely recited the same party line last week, despite the fact that the Scarlet Knights were preparing to face Ball State in a matchup of 7-5 teams that is a far cry from where Rutgers envisioned itself at the beginning of the season.
With two-thirds of its starters back from a team that finished 11-2 in 2006 - including Teel plus record-setting running back Ray Rice and a talented wide receiver corps - this was supposed to be the year Rutgers continued its ascension into college football's upper echelon.
Those predictions landed with a thud after consecutive losses to Maryland and Cincinnati, and resounding defeats to West Virginia and Connecticut only reaffirmed that the initial exuberance may have been a bit irrational.
Still, Rutgers can be proud of the fact that it is playing in its third consecutive bowl game for the first time in the program's history.
``If you're in a bowl game, you're a good football team,'' coach Greg Schiano said. ``We're blessed to be going to a bowl and we're very excited about going to the International Bowl.''
Teel must feel particularly blessed to have another game to play, given his circumstances.
He injured his throwing hand in the first month of the season and spent most of the next two months having trouble gripping the ball. He acknowledged that there were weeks when he was barely able to practice.
``There were times I did nothing because I couldn't,'' he said. ``Obviously it affects anyone, even the best quarterbacks in the NFL, to not get the reps. You get the mental reps because you see it, but that's not the same as going out there and going through it. You need to see everything, you need to get your checks, get guys in the right spots at the right times.''
Despite the injury, Teel's numbers rose from 2006 when he helped lead Rutgers to an 11-2 record and the school's first bowl victory: 17 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and 2,844 yards passing, compared to 12 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 2,135 yards a year ago.
He played heroically in a 30-27 upset of then-No. 2 South Florida on Oct. 18, throwing two touchdown passes despite being so hampered by the injury that Schiano came close to pulling him. A week later, though, he threw two interceptions and no touchdowns in a 38-3 loss to West Virginia that all but eliminated them from BCS consideration.
Subsequent losses to UConn and Louisville - the latter in a game Teel was 21-of-32 for 265 yards and two touchdowns - relegated Rutgers to the second-year International Bowl, the only bowl game played outside the U.S.
Teel's pragmatic approach to the game sounded like it was lifted from Schiano's playbook.
``All the stuff about, 'We could be here, we should be there,' it is what it is,'' Teel said. ``It's a great opportunity for me to have a chance to play healthy again, and it gives us the opportunity to get all the young guys an extra 15 or so practices so they can really elevate themselves and really learn the game.''
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