June 22, 2018 | ° F

Rutgers hits reset button for Kansas

Photo by Michelle Klejmont |

Interim head coach Norries Wilson has implored his team his team to improve with the run on both sides of the ball as KU’s up-tempo attack coming to town.

Last week, the Rutgers football team couldn't have wanted anything more than to get away from the suspensions and arrests lingering throughout the program when it departed for Happy Valley.

But soon enough, the end result made the Scarlet Knights (1-2, 0-1) rush back to the Banks in a heartbeat.

The fallout from a 28-3 road loss in the team's Big Ten Conference opener at Penn State didn't help ease the pain in Piscataway. 

Rutgers had an opportunity to silence the outsiders with a national television audience tuned into Big Ten Network and a crowd of 103,323 on-hand at Beaver Stadium.

But that dissipated after the first 15 minutes of football.

Interim head coach Norries Wilson, who conducted a unique press conference in the visiting team media room after the game and emphasized the need for improvements everywhere following a messy showing, made that clear once more at Monday’s press conference.

“I'm not happy with the production that we had on Saturday,” Wilson reiterated.

But when the Knights take the field at High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday at noon, the circumstances set the stage for a return that should feel more than welcoming.

Factor in an opponent facing much more turmoil — at least on the field — with Kansas visiting the Banks for the first meeting between the two football programs and suddenly a beacon of light at the end of the tunnel dimly peaks its way through the cracks.

Winless in their last 33 games away from their friendly confines at Memorial Stadium, the Jayhawks (0-2) haven’t been able to put together anything close to promising on the football field outside of Lawrence, Kansas.

But even at that, the Knights' backs are up against the wall in their own house. After the Nittany Lions pounced their way to 330 yards and four touchdowns on 41 carries to gash the Rutgers defense in an up-tempo scheme, Kansas enters primed to follow. Poised to dial up a heavy dose of handoffs, tosses and draws in a ground-and-pound attack, the Jayhawks should look to duplicate Penn State's winning recipe.

That formula starts with Ke’aun Kinner, a junior college transfer running back who became the first Jayhawk in the program’s 125-year history to begin his career at Kansas with consecutive 100-yard games. The junior totaled 270 yards on the ground with three scores on 43 touches to start the season.

Throw a dual-threat quarterback into the mix with Montell Cozart, whose 29 carries for 112 yards and rushing touchdown make him the team’s second-leading rusher, and it forces the Knights to adjust.

Wilson, who oversees the running backs unit for Rutgers, knows the Knights need to fix their approach on the ground on both sides of scrimmage.

“The quarterback and the running back (for Kansas) on design runs both average over five yards a carry,” Wilson said. “… We didn't do a good job of stopping the run last week. That's not a secret. I'm not trying to disparage our guys, but we have to get better stopping the run and we have to be able to block some athletic people up front on our offensive line.”

After the three-man tailback rotation opened the season strong with promising results on a balanced distribution in carries, the unit senior Paul James once called the deepest in the Big Ten stalled when it was needed most.

Part of that is from an offensive line that lost junior right guard Chris Muller in the second quarter of last Saturday’s contest. Sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano took a beating in the pocket, sacked five times without a ground game to bail him out.

James, who perhaps took the biggest step back in what was the worst statistical outing of his illustrious career with a negative yards per carry average after mustering seven yards on 10 carries, was ready to move on when he met with the media on Monday.

“I wasn’t angry,” James said. “It’s football. I’m ready for that. You’re going to get hit, you’re going to get hurt — that’s just how it is.”

While James enters without a touchdown and 3.6 yards per carry on the season, the two Knights who filled his shoes last year have carried that momentum from their freshman campaigns.

The thunder-and-lightning combo of sophomores Josh Hicks (41 carries, 258 yards, two touchdowns) and Robert Martin (24 carries, 150 yards, one touchdown) both sport lofty averages of 6.3 yards per carry entering their fourth game of the fall.

Hicks, who posted a team-high 49 yards on seven carries at Penn State, looked like his efforts might have deserved the bulk of the touches — or at least more to feed the hot hand the Palmetto, Florida, native held.

The 5-foot-10, 210-pounder provided flashes of Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch when he turned a would-be safety five yards deep in his own end zone into a 19-yard gain, slicing his way the Nittany Lions' defense.

Could Hicks be the one to take the next step this weekend? Possibly.

But against a Jayhawks defense that has given up 451 yards on the ground in losses to South Dakota State (FCS) and Memphis, all three featured Knights at the position will get a couple cracks.

And that collective effort could be the first step to getting the team back on track.

“I can’t really say (I should be the No. 1 running back) because all of us are good backs,” Hicks said. “Whoever has the hot hand is going to play.”

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.

Garrett Stepien

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