Penalties plague Rutgers in the young season
Any team can handle getting beat by an opponent.
But this season, the Rutgers football team has been beating itself.
The Scarlet Knights (1-2, 0-1) have accrued 28 penalties through three games, which stands second to last in the Big Ten Conference in front of Nebraska (32), according to bigten.org.
In the gut-wrenching 37-34 loss to Washington State Sept. 12, Rutgers had two would-be touchdowns called back — a 21-yard run by sophomore Josh Hicks and a 29-yard catch and run by junior Janarion Grant on a bubble screen.
The penalties, coupled with the turnovers — the Knights' minus-five turnover ratio is dead last in the conference — have been contributing factors to Rutgers’ slow start in the 2015 campaign.
Head coach Kyle Flood, who is currently serving a three-game suspension for contacting a faculty member regarding a former player’s grade, has a bend-but-don’t-break policy when it comes to penalties.
“To me, the penalty issue is the scores coming off the board,” Flood said. “When you look at penalties over time, you're going to see highly-penalized teams that win a lot of football games. But when those penalties come in critical areas on scoring plays and explosive plays, those are not four- and five-yard plays.”
The fourth-year head coach acknowledged the coaching staff’s interest in reducing the presence of yellow laundry, but made it crystal clear that the turnovers are what break a team’s back.
“It's not something we don't focus on,” Flood said of the flags. “I think the turnovers, to me, are an even bigger factor. Now, you get penalties that take away touchdowns and that's a huge, huge impact on the game, but the turnovers, to me, are the first place I look.”
Sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano is responsible for four of Rutgers' six turnovers this fall, throwing three interceptions — two against Penn State — and fumbling at a crucial point in the loss against Wazzu.
But senior left tackle Keith Lumpkin feels the offensive line has a responsibility to protect the quarterback, to prevent the need to rush throws or otherwise turn the ball over under pressure.
“We play a part of that too,” Lumpkin said of the giveaways. “We have to block it and if we don’t block it and there’s pressure, that’s on us. We have to do a better job and I feel like we’ve done a better job this week.”
Interim head coach Norries Wilson talked about the Knights' bug-a-boo in the early going, saying the coaching staff has focused this week on reducing the “forced” penalties.
“Coach (Ben) McDaniels spoke on it on Monday morning and we have been harping on the penalties each practice,” Wilson said after Wednesday's practice.
Wilson elaborated on those sentiments.
“And I wanna say today we didn’t have an unforced penalty today. I haven’t looked at the film, I don’t know if we had a hold or two," Wilson said. "But we didn’t have any false starts or anything of that nature in today’s practice or yesterday’s practice.”
But this is not only a problem on the offensive side of the ball.
After Rutgers kicked a field goal to chip into Penn State’s lead at 21-3 last Saturday, the Lions took over at their own 23-yard line following the kickoff. On the first play from scrimmage, the Knights jumped offside, giving PSU a first-and-five at the 28, completely changing the Lion’s starting field position.
Junior weak side linebacker Steve Longa is Rutgers’ leading tackler in each of the last two seasons and his 26 tackles in 2015 are tied for fifth-most in the conference. But the Saddle Brook, New Jersey, native has also become a vocal leader for the defense and he believes that these mental mishaps are fixable.
“That’s something we’re trying to work on,” Longa said. “Our penalties are just losing focus. We just gotta be more focused and not take a play off because you don’t know if that play is gonna cost you the game. We just gotta be a lot more focused.”
Rutgers racked up five illegal procedure penalties against the Nittany Lions, costing the offense 25 yards. For the season, the Knights have lost 189 yards to penalties.
In the midst of a two-game losing streak, Rutgers' homecoming matchup with an up-tempo Kansas team should be the focus. The home team will have enough trouble containing an offense that runs a play every 16-18 seconds. The last thing the Knights need to worry about is competing against themselves.
"That something that comes from the upperclassmen,” Lumpkin said. “Us leaders have addressed the team and the offensive unit, we talk about it. We've gotta be more locked in and eliminate the mental mistakes. The mental mistakes lead to the penalties. We just gotta correct ourselves and like I said, we should be better this weekend."
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