Rutgers quickly shakes off early scare in home opener to remain unbeaten entering first Big Ten game
Stunned silence swept the Piscataway air Saturday afternoon as Howard running back Aquanius Freeman tumbled into the right side of the end zone and the scoreboard read 7-0, Bison, with 10:38 left in the first quarter.
The Rutgers football team's run of 342 straight minutes of scoreless defense against FCS opponents was over. Likely finished, too, is the nation's longest streak of eight seasons with at least one shutout.
But in the end, none of it mattered.
Instead of giving Howard any hope of a monumental upset, the Scarlet Knights shook off a sluggish start with 31 unanswered points and ultimately a 38-25 home-opening win, setting the stage for arguably the most anticipated game in school history next Saturday against Penn State.
"Immediately we'll turn our sights to next week," head coach Kyle Flood said postgame. "We'll review this film tonight as coaches. ... We're excited about the opportunity to open Big Ten play, to open it at home, to open it at night, to open it on [Big Ten Network] and to make a great first impression."
The Knights (2-0) gave the 48,040 fans in attendance at High Point Solutions Stadium plenty of reasons to keep faith.
Senior quarterback Gary Nova completed 79 percent of his 19 passes, going for 282 yards and four touchdowns. That moved him within two scores of former player Mike Teel, Rutgers' all-time leader with 59 touchdown passes.
In less than 20 minutes of action, Nova connected with eight different receivers and delivered three touchdowns to make the score 24-7, sharply distributing the ball all over the field.
"I thought it was a very efficient performance by Gary, which is what we needed," Flood said. "When the check downs were there, he took the check downs. When the throw to the back was there, he threw it to the back ... and when he had opportunities down the field, he took them."
Paul James was the main beneficiary of the offensive outburst.
The junior running back hauled in two receiving touchdowns -- the first of his career -- including a 69-yard screen pass on a Howard (0-2) blitz play late in the first quarter, sprinting untouched down the sideline and into the end zone in front of the student section.
Along with taking 13 carries on the ground, James finished with 143 all-purpose yards and three scores, raising his team-leading season tally to six touchdowns.
"I definitely feel like I showed a different dimension [to my game]," James said. "I worked a lot on the receiving end of being a running back this summer and working into this training camp, so I feel like it helped out a lot."
Although the Knights lagged defensively in the second half as several starters were pulled and the lead softened, a critical component of Rutgers' pass rush continued to show promise.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Kemoko Turay collected his team-leading third sack of the season in the third quarter, wrapping up Howard quarterback Greg McGhee to bring up 4th-and-22.
The 6-foot-6, 235-pounder hopes his rapid development can pay dividends against a Penn State offensive line currently dealing with some protection issues up front.
"If I have it all figured out, I feel like I can carry this team," Turay said. "That's what I really want to do, that's my determination and that's why I came to Rutgers in the first place. ... I've got a lot of stuff hanging on my shoulders, and I'm ready."
Piscataway's faithful hope the same for the rest of Rutgers, which enters perhaps its most anticipated week of preparation since joining the Big Ten with Penn State looming.
"The level of urgency will definitely be ramped up," Nova said. "You can try to block it out as much as you want, but guys realize how much this game means to the University, first Big Ten -- things like that -- but at the end of the day, you've just got to block it out and it's just another football game."
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