Bad to worse
Knights’ sloppy play on offense, defense keeps RU from clinching bowl eligibility for third consecutive game
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Remember when the Rutgers football team was 4-1?
How about 5-3?
Remember when clinching a bowl berth was nearly a guarantee?
The Scarlet Knights’ 28-17 loss Saturday to Connecticut was Rutgers’ (5-6, 2-5) third failed attempt at bowl eligibility, surrendering its fifth game in six tries.
Starting senior quarterback Chas Dodd instead of junior Gary Nova allowed Rutgers’ offense to start anew.
Unfortunately for Rutgers, defenses cannot turn a page like that with one late-season move.
But the predictable losing formula stuck on both sides of the ball, as the Knights played staler than the colorless dead grass surrounding the navy-tinted Rentschler Stadium in the barren section of East Hartford.
“It’s not the NFL,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “You don’t sign players during the season, but we’ve got our football team and we’ve got some young guys out there running around that as they mature are going to be much better football players.”
Dodd, throwing 16-for-35, gave the offense a new look but no newfound productivity against UConn (2-9, 2-5).
Operating mostly out of the shotgun with a mildly spread formation, Rutgers’ only offensive touchdown came from a 3-yard rush from freshman running back Justin Goodwin. That put the Knights ahead, 17-14, with 2:27 left in the third quarter.
“Gary’s been in the shotgun quite a bit, as well. It’s really just a matter of personnel group,” Flood said. “You’ll see us under center at 21 [two tailbacks, two wide receivers, one tight end] personnel, we’ll be in the shotgun a little bit on 21 personnel. And 11 [three wideouts, one tailback, one tight end] personnel, you’ll almost always see us in the gun.”
Rutgers’ final comeback attempt ended with cornerback Taylor Mack’s second interception of the game with 1:58 left in regulation.
The previous trial came with Rutgers at its own 3-yard line with 9:04 left.
The three and out consisted of a throw to junior wideout Brandon Coleman’s feet, a 5-yard Goodwin rush and a low and away throw to senior wideout Quron Pratt’s left after he turned around in light coverage.
Rutgers’ offense appeared smoother when Dodd completed a 26-yard touchdown to redshirt freshman wideout Ruhann Peele early in the second quarter.
One mistake erased it.
Redshirt freshman right guard Chris Muller’s personal foul made it a 15-yard penalty instead of a touchdown that would have tied it at 14.
Pratt also gave UConn a short field for its second touchdown when the ball sailed in front of him on a kickoff-return fumble that running back Martin Hyppolite recovered.
Six plays later, the Huskies moved 31 yards for a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead with 3:57 left in the first quarter.
Pratt looked at the locker-room ground and spoke under his breath when answering how he took his mind off the fumble.
“Stay focused, try to not worry about it, just having great teammates to be there on your side saying just to let it go and everybody’s going to play with you until the end,” he said. “They are great teammates.”
If Rutgers loses Saturday to South Florida at High Point Solutions Stadium, its season is over.
The Bulls (2-9, 2-5) enter with five straight losses, but their 23-20 loss Friday to No. 19 Central Florida at least makes a USF win in Piscataway a legitimate possibility. That would make it four straight losses to end a season when Rutgers was one win away from bowl eligibility.
It reminds Dodd of his freshman year in 2010, when Rutgers ended the year with four total wins and six straight losses.
Dodd’s career began with a game-winning drive against UConn, giving the Knights what could have been a clearer picture of their future.
Three years later after a defeat to the two-win Huskies and having no consistent quarterback, it appears the Knights lost control of their destiny.
“It didn’t play out the way we wanted it to that season, and these past few games, they’ve been the same,” Dodd said. “But it’s now in the past.”