Rutgers aims to rebound on defense in Big Ten opener
A single win can solve many problems, for winning cures all ails.
The Rutgers football team picked a good time to get away.
Amid the distractions of a suspended head coach and top wide receiver, to go with the dismissal of six players, the Scarlet Knights (1-1) will depart from Piscataway this weekend to open the 2015 Big Ten schedule against Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania.
Rutgers looks to rebound from a gut-wrenching loss to Washington State last Saturday 37-34. And a week after battling one of the most potent offenses in the country, the Knights will attempt to contain the most ballyhooed quarterback to play for the Nittany Lions (1-1) since Kerry Collins.
At his weekly press conference Monday, Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood was complimentary of his first Big Ten opponent this fall.
“Now we turn the page as a program and we move to Penn State,” Flood said. “And going to Happy Valley to face a very talented football team, a very well-coached football team with one of the premier quarterbacks in the country. We are going to have to find ways to get pressure on the quarterback. If you give Christian (Hackenberg) enough time and you make him comfortable in the pocket, even if you cover the receivers, he can deliver the ball, so that can be an issue. So we have to get him off the spot."
Penn State’s junior quarterback has the tools.
Hackenberg has the arm talent that has had pro scouts crowing since he arrived in Happy Valley as a freshman. He possesses the size of a first round pick and he has the benefit of 100,000-plus Penn State fans, packed tightly into Beaver Stadium, half of whom will been clad in blue, the other half in white, as the Nittany Lions stage their first ever “Stripe Out.”
What Hackenberg doesn’t have — and has consistently lacked throughout his career in State College — is the protection necessary to find open receivers. Despite his talent and a slew of supporters, Hackenberg’s numbers in 2015 have been pedestrian at best.
The 6-foot-4, 228-pounder has completed only 48 percent of his passes this fall, likely a result of his discomfort in the pocket, having been sacked 10 times in PSU’s week one loss to Temple, after being dumped in the backfield 44 times in 2014, including three times by the Knights in their last meeting, a 13-10 Lions win.
But Rutgers' defense underwhelmed against Wazzu, yielding 559 yards of offense with 478 of those coming through the air.
“It’s disappointing,” said Knights middle linebacker Kaiwan Lewis after the loss to WSU. “But I mean, it’s one (game) of the season. So we’re just going to move on to Penn State and try to make more plays and make plays enough to win.”
The loss was a blow, given Rutgers' relatively soft out-of-conference schedule this season (Norfolk State, WSU, Kansas and Army), but the hope of a conference title and bowl eligibility remain in tact.
“I’m not going to downplay it because a loss is a loss," Lewis said. "But at the same time we’re focused on Penn State now because that game is over."
One of the bright spots from last week was the play of the Knights’ leading tackler, junior weak side linebacker Steve Longa. Longa made 14 tackles against the Cougars, including 12 solos, the most unassisted tackles Longa has accrued in one game in his career on the Banks.
“Obviously we left a lot of plays out there,” Longa said in Saturday’s postgame. “I left a lot of plays out there and there’s a lot more that I could have done, but that game is over now and it’s time to move on. The tackles, the numbers are nice, but at the end of the day we didn’t win the game. So it doesn’t really mean a lot to me.”
Penn State’s head coach James Franklin has respect for Longa and his defense, especially the line, given the Knights compiled five sacks through two games.
"I think we're going to see a similar game plan as last year, similar game plan that we saw against Temple,” Franklin said in his press conference Tuesday, according to gopsusports.com. “I think you're going to see (Rutgers) load the box, blitz, try to cause confusion with our offensive line.”
Rutgers will be reliant on protection as well — protecting the football and safeguarding the drives that sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano is able to mount.
The Knights struggled with both last week, committing 11 penalties — two of which cost them touchdowns — and turning the ball over three times.
But in order to leave the Lions' den with a win, they must limit the mistakes.
"Turnovers and penalties, you just can’t have as an offense," Laviano said. "It just kills a drive. We’re going to stay positive. But we’re looking forward to (Saturday)."
Laviano has better numbers than Hackenberg, having completed 82 percent of his passes for 342 yards and four touchdowns through his first two games in 2015.
But the season truly begins Saturday, and mental mishaps won't cut it if Laviano and company want to leave Happy Valley with a win.
The Knights must keep Laviano upright, allow him the time to dissect an average Nittany Lions defense. And if Rutgers can limit the risk of sacks, their sophomore quarterback's second start could prove more fruitful than the first.
“It's a big matchup," Flood said. "And they have got good players on that line with one of the better defenses in the country and a defensive line that is certainly as talented as some of the best defensive lines in this conference, and there's quite a few. But they are right up there with all of them."
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