Rutgers cleans up penalties, consistency at QB for bye week
Sometimes he’ll throw a pass or make a play with his legs that flashes the promise everyone associated with the Rutgers football team saw in the three-star recruit coming out of Holy Trinity High School on Long Island in 2013.
At other times, the Scarlet Knights’ sophomore starting quarterback makes throws that leave the same group of people scratching their heads.
Chris Laviano leads the Big Ten Conference and stands ninth in the nation in completion percentage at 72 percent. That’s better than No. 2 Michigan State’s Connor Cook, Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong and even Cardale Jones, the junior starter for a defending National Champion in No. 1 Ohio State.
Laviano’s 148.5 efficiency rating ranks fourth in the league, three points behind Cook (third), but ahead of Armstrong, Jones and the Big Ten’s most hyped NFL prospect, Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg, who doesn’t even crack the conference’s top 10.
But on the flip side, the Glen Head, New York, native has thrown five interceptions in four games this fall.
With the exception of a hail mary situation in the waning moments of the first half against Kansas last Saturday, most of Laviano’s interceptions are either failed attempts to throw the ball away or foolish efforts to try and make a play.
Sometimes, he's piping hot, placing the ball perfectly on a fade route to junior wide receiver Carlton Agudosi on a back shoulder throw to give Rutgers a 7-0 lead over the Jayhawks.
Others he's bitter cold, throwing a prayer into the end zone while falling backward, on a third-and-six from the nine-yard line, which was promptly picked by KU defensive back Greg Allen.
“I have to live to fight another down,” Laviano said after the 27-14 win over Kansas.
Interim head coach Norries Wilson refuses to excuse any of the picks, but he does acknowledge that some are worse than others. Either way, the man charged with leading the Knights in the absence of suspended head coach Kyle Flood feels a tweak is needed for his starter in Laviano.
"You can't throw an interception out,” Wilson said on his weekly teleconference Sunday. “You don't wanna just try to force balls or make bad decisions, that just leads to losses.”
But in Wilson and the coaching staff’s assessment of the sophomore signal-caller, there is a little wiggle room. That margin of error is overlooked by most of the media. Reporters and Rutgers fans have appeared to forget that the kid taking snaps from center on Saturdays is just that — a kid.
Laviano is 20 years old and he has made only three starts in his career. His six touchdowns in four games are respectable, especially when considering one of the most decorated quarterbacks in school history, Gary Nova, threw one fewer touchdown and the same amount of interceptions through the first three starts of his career on the Banks.
“I take it into consideration,” Wilson said of his quarterback’s youth. “It's his first time as a full-time starter in college football — he's going to make some bad decisions. That's why we coach him.”
Senior captain and left tackle Keith Lumpkin is the most tenured player on the offensive side of the ball for the Knights. The 6-foot-8, 320-pounder said he saw progression in his sophomore quarterback.
“He’s grown,” Lumpkin said of Laviano. “And that’s a good sign for a first-year quarterback. He’s making smarter decisions out there. He’s doing a great job … identifying the 'MIKE' and making sure the offense is running smoothly.”
Laviano has had the luxury of leaning on a running game that has gained 844 yards on the ground this fall. The sophomore understands the importance of a potent rushing attack and how vital an asset his tailbacks can be in terms of moving the chains.
“I mean, it helps everybody. It helps lineman gain confidence, it helps running backs gain confidence and it helps a coach with his play-calling," Laviano said. “Obviously, it helps me a lot. It takes the bearings off … third-and-long and what not, so we’ll establish that. We get into situations on the field where it’s easier to manage and that’s what we need.”
The 6-foot-3, 220-pound quarterback has made use of his legs as well, picking up first downs on a few occasions when he was flushed from the pocket and his receivers were covered. But Wilson doesn’t expect Laviano’s role in the running game to increase.
"He's not a read zone guy that we expect to pound the ball in there 10, 12 times a game, but if the opportunity presents itself, he knows that it's okay to run the ball in that situation,” Wilson said. ”By all means, go and get five, six, seven yards. And if it's first down, make it second-and-short."
Wilson doesn’t suggest that Rutgers is coddling the quarterback, but he is content with Laviano leading the team on methodical drives in order to control the time of possession.
“We don't need great plays from Chris, we just need to get him to eliminate the bad plays,” Wilson said. “Leading the conference in completion percentage is a fantastic thing. But what we want to do is win the conference.”
Of the 128 teams playing in the College Football Subdivision (FBS), the Knights stand tied for sixth-worst in terms of penalties.
Rutgers’ 38 penalties in 2015 are only five fewer than the most penalized team in the country — conference foe Nebraska — and the Knights have cost themselves 269 yards due to the presence of flags on the field.
"We can't afford that,” Wilson said. “Being in the bottom 10 in the nation in penalties isn't where we wanna be. We would like to be the least penalized team. It's gonna be spoken about and we're going to keep harping at it because it's important."
It will be especially important next Saturday when Rutgers rolls out the scarlet carpet for No. 2 Michigan State on Oct. 10 at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Lumpkin and fellow veteran Chris Muller know how important reducing the penalties is to the team and the significance of the price paid for each petty foul.
“Us leaders, us guys who play a lot of snaps, we gotta really start to get on the same page,” Lumpkin said. “Everything has to be perfect and it all starts in practice. There’s no reason for us to be in the bottom half, we’re a very disciplined team.”
Muller, a junior who has started 17 consecutive games at right guard, has been docked for a few holding calls in the young season. He stressed that the reduction in penalties could be as easy as paying closer attention.
“We can’t get penalties,” Muller said after practice Wednesday. “We have to pay attention to everything that they do and we need to stay focused.”
As frustrating as the penalties have been, the turnover bug continues to bite the Knights on the behind. Rutgers' minus-seven turnover ratio is second-worst in the Big Ten and it’s not just the ill-advised interceptions from a young quarterback.
Rutgers' ball-carriers have fumbled five times in 2015. That figure does not sit well with Wilson, whose backfield is responsible for four of the fumbles.
“See, the fumble ... it's tough to play in my room,” Wilson said. “We call it bringing shame to the room. That's what we call it. We can't put the ball on the ground because the game can change with any turnovers.”
Lumpkin doesn’t necessarily take the turnovers personally, but the left tackle and captain said it isn’t a welcomed sign either.
“It’s upsetting because we say everyday, ‘The ball is the program,’” he said. “An interception, a fumble or some type of turnover will kill the momentum we’ve built on that drive.”
Heading into a matchup against the No. 2 Spartans, Wilson knows that if the Knights have visions of an upset, mistakes will have to be kept to a minimum.
“We want to win games,” Wilson said. “To do that, we have to stop turning the ball over and it's not just the interceptions, but the fumbles also.”
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