Late defensive stand, fumble recovery fuel Rutgers' season-opening win in shootout
SEATTLE — Three minutes and 18 seconds remained on the clock, and the ball was back in the dangerous hands of Connor Halliday.
The man who torched the Rutgers football team most of the night, setting a Scarlet Knights opponent single-game record with 532 yards passing, needed only one more act of brilliance to will the Cougars to a wild shootout win.
The Knights, meanwhile, were experiencing deja vu. Shades of Fresno State from when Rutgers fell one point short in double-overtime last August on the west coast came to the forefront.
But when it mattered most, the Knights buckled down and stopped Washington State's quarterback in his tracks. Senior safety Johnathan Aiken swooped in with 59 seconds remaining, breaking up a 4th-and-13 lob pass intended for River Cracraft at the Cougars' 38-yard line.
Rutgers (1-0) escaped with a 41-38 win Thursday at the Seattle Seahawks' CenturyLink Field, kick-starting its inaugural campaign in the Big Ten with a much more rewarding outcome than a year ago.
"I think the resiliency of this team really showed itself tonight," said head coach Kyle Flood. "This has been a team that has been extremely close throughout the entire offseason, really from the end of that [Dec. 28 Pinstripe Bowl] game on. ... We got a couple key stops in the second half. It wasn't pretty, but we got one more stop than they did."
Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered without an even more heroic play from Aiken only seven minutes earlier on special teams.
After senior quarterback Gary Nova's back-to-back incompletions brought up fourth down from Rutgers' 16-yard line, the Knights were forced to punt down by four with time running out.
Aiken delivered a hard hit to Cracraft — the returner on the play — jarring the ball loose as sophomore cornerback Anthony Cioffi scooped up the fumble at midfield.
"It was kind of luck of the draw," said Nova, who finished the night with 281 yards passing, two touchdowns and one interception, "but we just knew we had to capitalize."
Rutgers went 50 yards in eight plays for the game-winning score, capped by junior running back Paul James' 3-yard touchdown run up the middle with 3:24 left on the clock.
Working with an offensive line returning all five starters from last season, James turned 29 carries into 173 yards and three scores to pace the Knights' offense.
"I felt at home running behind them," said James, a 2013 First Team All-AAC selection. "They all have the experience, they all know what they're doing and it's just easy. It's a lot easier on offense when everybody knows what they're doing and we can just move down the field."
But for as crisp as the Knights were offensively, Washington State's (0-1) relentless aerial assault nearly proved insurmountable.
Halliday took time to find his groove, throwing an interception on the Cougars' first offensive series and faltering twice on the team's first two redzone trips. But once he found a rhythm in the second quarter, the fifth-year senior went berserk, at one point throwing a touchdown on four of five drives.
The Knights, who did a solid job tackling in space and generating disruptive pressure in the trenches early on, stumbled into halftime with a 21-17 advantage. The Cougars continued to push the tempo and target defensive mismatches.
"There's going to be some things that we're going to need to correct, for sure, if we play this style of offense again, which I don't know that we will," Flood said. "But I think you have to credit them as well. They've got really good coaches, they're as good at what they do as anybody in college football. ... I thought we did a good job early in the game and they did a good job countering."
Halliday gave Washington State its first lead, 24-21, less than three minutes into the third quarter on a 7-yard strike, and from there Rutgers never led again until the forced fumble shifted the tide late.
The Knights' defense showed fortitude in the waning minutes — something that was lacking all too often last season.
"I saw it in our belief that we were going to win and that we were going to get stops," senior linebacker Kevin Snyder said of the defense's growth from last year. "Even after they scored [three touchdowns in four drives] on us, we still had that confidence that we were going to be able to stop them if we just didn't beat ourselves."
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