Rutgers refuses to overlook FCS foe Howard, blocks out Penn State in home opener
With arguably the biggest game in school history looming next Saturday, it would be hard to blame the Rutgers football team for overlooking Howard (0-1) in tomorrow’s home opener.
After all, the Scarlet Knights have dominated the FCS program in three all-time meetings by a combined score of 127-14. Two years ago, they shut out the Bison, 26-0, in Kyle Flood’s first game as head coach to maintain what is currently the nation’s longest streak of eight years with at least one shutout.
The Knights (1-0), though, insist none of that outside perception is internal.
“I haven’t heard the word ‘Penn State’ in the locker room yet,” said senior strong safety Lorenzo Waters, one of four team captains. “That’s a good sign that all these guys are focused on the game we have coming up right now, and that’s Howard. All our attention right now is going against Howard.”
And forget about any notion this is another spring game — the perfect time for Flood to give less experienced players a chance to establish themselves.
“I don’t ever look at it that way,” the third-year head coach said. “I see it as a game that will begin 0-0, and we have to be ready to compete.”
The politically correct sentiments are there, but after the Knights needed all but 59 seconds to survive last Thursday’s Seattle shootout, the matchup couldn’t play more into Rutgers’ hands.
Howard ran the ball 51 times in its 41-0 season-opening loss to Akron, gaining little traction in the passing game with only 12 completions. That means Rutgers should be able to get back to the comfort zone of its 4-3 base defense — the staple of one of the nation’s stingiest run defenses.
Still, the Knights aren’t overlooking what the Bison present on the other side of the ball.
“They’ve got some athletic guys,” said senior quarterback Gary Nova, who threw for 281 yards and two touchdowns against Washington State. “They’ve got some big corners, they like to play man coverage. They’re going to test you on the outside, they like to bring pressure, so we need to be sound in protection and be able to run the ball.”
Enter an offensive line coming off an impressive performance against a Pac-12 opponent, paving the way for 215 total rushing yards and allowing only one sack.
Junior running back Paul James was the star of the night, carrying the ball 29 times for 173 yards and three touchdowns, including the game winner with 3:24 left in the fourth quarter.
Flood appears willing to turn the 6-foot, 205-pound power runner loose again, despite nagging durability issues. A lower leg injury sidelined James for four games last season and much of spring ball.
“Last year’s injury I didn’t think had anything to do with any of his previous injuries,” Flood said. “I thought it was just something he got tackled a certain way and he got injured, and that’s what happens. I don’t have any concerns about that this year. I think Paul James is in excellent condition, he looks great. He said he could carry 25 times, I think he can carry 35 times. That’s kind of been my goal when you’ve got a guy who can dominate the game.”
But it’s likely that at some point, Howard will force Rutgers to take some shots downfield.
The Bison pose various 4-3, 4-4 defensive looks up front, also employing Cover 0 blitzes with pure man coverage and no deep safety over the top.
Akron exposed holes with six plays of 25 yards or more.
“We’ve got to try to do the same things. We need to create some big plays on offense,” Flood said. “They’re very aggressive with what they do on defense. ... They’re going to challenge you to make some plays one-on-one. Akron made those plays, but that doesn’t guarantee us we’ll make those plays.”
Above all, Flood expressed a desire during the week to continue sharpening fundamentals, and Rutgers should have every opportunity to do so against an FCS foe.
After a West Coast trip that returned a positive result, unlike last season’s opener at Fresno State, the Knights have every motivation to stay focused — even with Penn State on tap.
“1-0 gives us the opportunity to be 2-0, and ultimately that’s what we’re trying to get to: just being 1-0 against Howard,” Waters said. “Starting off with that little momentum behind our back I think is definitely going to propel us through our next couple games.”
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