Rutgers adjusts to lighter workload during bye week
Heading into its first and only bye week of the season, the Rutgers football team finds itself in a unique position.
At the end of September, the Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) were able to avoid disaster last Saturday with a 27-14 drubbing of Kansas (0-3) for their first homecoming victory since a 21-20 triumph past Navy on Oct. 15, 2011.
But the win held more value than that. After a heartbreaking 37-34 home loss to Washington State on Sept. 12 and a 28-3 embarrassment at Penn State on Sept. 19, interim head coach Norries Wilson said he viewed the matchup with the Jayhawks as a must-win "to a point."
With an Oct. 10 showdown against No. 2 Michigan State firing off the first round of the 2015 Big Ten gauntlet, Rutgers receives all the time in the world to prepare for a team that shredded the Knights, 45-3, last year in East Lansing.
So, just what goes into this week of practice with an upcoming idle Saturday?
"(Tuesday) was the first day we practiced," Wilson said in his weekly Big Ten teleconference. "... We came out stressing the things that we've been discussing on — unforced penalties, no false starts, lining up offsides and turnovers and working on fundamentals."
Taking off on Sunday and Monday, Rutgers's practice schedule for the week progresses past Tuesday into Wednesday and Thursday.
The lighter workload isn't the only element to the Knights' preparation that has changed.
While Wilson said he and the coaching staff have broken down the early film on the Spartans, noting the physicality of the defense and the front seven as the top two aspects that stick out, Rutgers won't be getting too caught up in preparation for its second conference game of the season.
Past what happens on the practice field, Wilson and the Knights pick things up heavily in the recruiting trail. With the open weekend, the assistant head coach, who also oversees the running backs unit, said those plans were on the agenda.
“This is our only bye week and our only bye week this season," he said. "We feel it’s important to go out and see as many kids as we can see and … see the coaches and keep building the relationships.”
Without head coach Kyle Flood, who remains suspended from his game day duties until Rutgers heads to Bloomington for an Oct. 17 Big Ten matchup with Indiana, the question arises regarding how Wilson and the staff approaches the process of keeping the class of 2016 together.
But after Jarrod Hewitt announced his decision to decommit from the Knights via Twitter, the three-star defensive end from Venice, Florida, became the first recruit to drop amid Flood's suspension and the off-field controversy that has built up since August.
When Wilson speaks with commits and interested recruits, he said he answers the questions and concerns of the players and their parents as honestly and openly as possible. And when it comes down to keeping the class together, Wilson stated his perspective simply.
“The sense that I get is the ones that are committed are still with us," he said. "And the ones that had interest in us are still very interested in us.”
Lost in the mix of Rutgers's most recent win was the improvement of its offensive line.
One week after the Knights' surrendered five sacks and mustered 43 yards on 32 carries against the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley, Rutgers responded with 312 yards on 58 carries against Kansas in a 27-14 rebound win.
Sophomore running back Josh Hicks, who had a game-high 113 yards and two touchdowns on 21 touches, commended the efforts of the line to open holes and room to run when he met with reporters after the game last Saturday.
“Our guys up front played a tough game and we ran the ball really well," he said.
On top of that, the Knights kept sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano standing upright with zero sacks on the afternoon.
To Wilson, that has been the most important — and perhaps overlooked — element to the offense's overall resurgence heading into the bye week.
"(The offensive line) rebounded from the five sacks performance that they had — that we had — at Penn State," he said. "They protected the quarterback pretty good this past week, just giving their quarterback time to see options and open throws, giving a lot of opportunities to the receivers and the tight ends to catch the ball and get downfield.”
Laviano, who completed 18-of-25 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns, was given enough time to register a rebound performance of his own.
Despite the two interceptions, Laviano underlined the importance of the offense's ability to rebound heading into the bye week with Michigan State looming.
"It's really important," he said. "It gives pretty much everyone in the program confidence now that we've got two wins and it's contagious. You're just hungry for another one, so I'm sure we'll put a lot of work in this week and next week and leading up to our next game.
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