Rutgers defense fails to make stops when needed most in 37-34 loss to WSU
It had all the makings of a storybook comeback until it wasn't.
After battling back from a 20-6 deficit just over six minutes into the third quarter, junior wide receiver Janarion Grant's 100-yard kick return for a touchdown gave the Rutgers football team its first lead of the game at 27-23.
But down the stretch and at the most crucial time in the game, the final drive, the Scarlet Knights' defense was unable to contain Washington State's offense, coming up on the short side of a 37-34 win for the Cougars.
The Cougs' air raid attack performed as advertised, carving up the home team's defense for 469 yards through the game's first 58 minutes and 27 seconds.
And after getting stops on two consecutive WSU drives, the Knights gave up the game-winning touchdown twice, allowing Wazzu to walk over them for 90 yards in 1:18 to suffer their first loss of 2015 in heartbreaking fashion.
Senior graduate transfer Kaiwan Lewis kept it simple when referencing the mindset of the defense going into the game’s final drive.
“Just to get a stop," Lewis said. "That’s the goal. That’s the mindset."
The South Carolina transfer insinuated that while Washington State’s offense was potent, it wasn’t at all surprising.
“It was pretty tough, but we practiced it. For the most part, they pretty much did the same stuff, so it’s just execution,” he said. “We just gotta go back and fix some things on film and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
It appeared for a moment that Rutgers would withstand the onslaught after Keith Harrington caught an outlet pass and ran it in for a score, but a booth review revealed the Cougar running back had stepped out of bounds at the 21-yard line.
Moments later, Luke Falk found River Cracraft in the end zone and that was the game.
“As you can imagine, we're disappointed as a program,” said head coach Kyle Flood in his opening statement. “(We) put ourselves in a place in the second half where we had opportunities to win the game and weren't able to get it done.”
Junior free safety Anthony Cioffi reiterated Lewis’s remarks and said WSU didn’t present any new wrinkles on offense throughout the game or on the final drive.
“They weren’t doing anything crazy, nothing different,” Cioffi said. “It came down to us executing our assignments and alignments. It’s just the little things, the focus plays.”
The Cougars' high-powered offense boasts great play at the wide receiver position. But while the big numbers were posted by junior wide receivers Gabe Marks (14 receptions, 146 yards, one touchdown) and River Cracraft (8 catches,121 yards, one touchdown), the backbreaking plays involved swing passes or screens out of the backfield.
Even when Rutgers seemed to have everyone covered, running backs Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington would squirt out from behind Washington State's mammoth offensive line to turn what appeared to be stops by the Knights into pivotal first down gains.
Harrington's five-yard touchdown with 8:55 to play in the third quarter gave the Cougars a 20-6 lead, a perfect example of a play Rutgers seemed to have stifled until a running back got open. Harrington finished the day with six receptions for 38 yards and a touchdown and his running mate, Wicks, finished with five catches for 41 yards out of the backfield.
After the thrilling victory was complete, Marks tried to put it all in context.
“A game like that will either take you all the way to the top or bring you all the way to the bottom in a heartbeat," the junior wideout said. "You just have to learn to keep your emotions in check. You just have to focus on the next play and learn to not get caught up.”
There were bright spots for the Knights, despite the crushing the defeat may have felt.
Rutgers' potent rushing attack excelled for the second week in a row, chewing up 198 yards on the ground at an average of 5.4 yards per carry. Sophomore Josh Hicks led the backfield with 16 carries for 91 yards, but maybe his biggest run of the game, an apparent 21-yard touchdown run, was called back due to a holding penalty.
"I thought we came out hard," Hicks said. "We made plays, but we just came out short."
During the very next play after the would-be touchdown, Hicks fumbled the ball away to the Cougars, and the Knights' threat was over.
"It's hard." Hicks said of the turnaround. "I gotta do better ball handling and be careful with the ball. The player caught the ball with his helmet and that's what caused it come out."
Sophomore running back Robert Martin picked up 61 yards on nine rushes, including a 15-yard pick-and-pop for a touchdown in the third quarter to put the Knights within eight at 20-12.
"I think we were able to run the ball pretty good," Martin said. "Our offensive line did a great job blocking for us. We just didn't get it done."
When asked if he would prefer to carry the ball more, Martin was coy in his response.
"I would definitely like to carry the ball more, but I trust the coaches," he said. "I feel like they are going to put the person in that they feel as though is going to keep the momentum going and I've just gotta be patient. But I feel as though every running back in that room can contribute to this team."
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