Rutgers overcomes early struggles in opening win


A glance at the box score doesn't tell the whole story.

The Rutgers football team earned a decisive victory in its season opener at High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday, 63-13 over Norfolk State, but the 50-point margin of victory seemed unimaginable after the Spartans opening drive.

After being outscored 128-0 in the three previous meetings between the two schools, Norfolk State carved up the Scarlet Knights' defense in the Spartan's first offensive series, needing just five plays to cover 75 yards. A 16-yard touchdown pass from NSU quarterback Greg Hankerson capped the drive to give the visitors a 7-0 lead before Rutgers fans had time to settle in their seats.

“I thought the football team did a good job today getting better as the game went on,” said Rutgers head coach Kyle flood. “Good football teams have to do that. It was our first opportunity to get out there and play. At times we were sharp and at times in the first half, we were not as sharp as I'd like.“

Although his team was on the losing side, Norfolk State’s first-year head coach Latrell Scott had a similar assessment to his coaching counterpart.

“It was great to be able to come out and score on the first drive,” Scott said. “All and all, I’m proud of the way our guys played.”

The conditions were not exactly ideal for Knights' sophomore quarterback Hayden Rettig when he entered for his first live snap in a football game in three years.

Faced with a third-and-seven on his first career drive, Rettig dropped five steps in the pocket and realized every receiver was covered, so he calmly slid right and escaped upfield 12 yards for a first down to keep the drive alive.

Three plays later, he found sophomore tight end Matt Flanagan for a 13-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7-7. Rettig finished the half a tidy 9-of-11 for 110 yards and two touchdowns (one rushing).

And just when it looked like a starting quarterback had finally distinguished himself, sophomore Chris Laviano entered the game in the second half, alongside the Big Ten’s most productive wide receiver last fall, senior Leonte Carroo.

On their second play from scrimmage, Laviano and Carroo connected on a 55-yard touchdown pass and catch, to blow the game open at 35-13, early in the third quarter.

Laviano and Carroo were both suspended for the first half by head coach Kyle Flood for violation of team policy, after the pair failed to return to their training camp quarters in time for lights out and Laviano was also caught at an establishment with a fake I.D.

After apologizing relentlessly for two weeks for breaking curfew, Carroo broke Norfolk State’s back in the third quarter.

“I just really wanted to go out there and make a play for my teammates,” Carroo said after the game. “I was really upset I couldn’t be out there for them in the first half.”

The preseason All-Big Ten selection hooked up with Laviano three times for three touchdowns in just 11 minutes and 47 seconds of game time. 

Carroo ended his season opener with three catches, for 129 yards and three touchdowns putting him atop the school’s record book with 22 career touchdowns.

Believe it or not, Laviano’s line might have been even more impressive.

The Glen Head, New York, native was a perfect 4-of-4 for 138 yards, three touchdowns and a ridiculous 637.3 quarterback rating.

“In the locker room at halftime when me and Chris (Laviano) were warming up, I just looked at him, he looked at me and he said, ‘Let’s go make plays.’ And that’s what we did,” Carroo said.

Rutgers finished the third quarter with 28 points and the Knights' 63-point total was the most points scored for the program since 2008 against Louisville when Rutgers won by a score of 63-14.

Flood drew on both the positives and negatives of the Knights' inaugural game of the 2015 season, commending the opponent and its coaching staff, while taking pleasure in the “W” earned by his team.

“We knew they would be a well-coached football team. I thought they played like that and congratulations to them, I'm sure they will have that program going in the direction that they want it to move,” Flood said. “I'm pleased we got better as the game went on and I'm pleased we went out in the second half and really played some good football in the third quarter."

***

All eyes were glued to junior Janarion Grant as he waited to field the Knights' first kickoff after Norfolk State knifed through the Rutgers defense for a score on the opening drive. $100,000 was at stake, with Autoland of Springfield, New Jersey, sponsoring a giveaway of $1,000 each of 100 select Rutgers students, seated in the student section, if the Knights were able to return their opening kickoff for a touchdown.

Unfortunately for those in the student section, Grant managed only a 22 yards on his first return. 

But on the opening kick of the second half, the junior from Trilby, Florida, had another chance. And this time, he didn’t miss.

Grant returned Spartan’s kicker Bo Lomax’s kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown to extend Rutgers once tenuous lead to 28-13.

The kick return for a touchdown was the second of Grant’s career on the Banks. The first came on his first collegiate touch, a 100-yard kick return against Fresno State to open the 2013 season.

“He's a special guy," Flood said. “Janarion is a special guy. You saw it in the past and you certainly saw it today when he took the (second half’s) opening kickoff back.“ 

Grant didn’t seem surprised in his postgame interviews, but he never does when it comes to his spectacular returns, mentioning returns for touchdowns is part of his daily routine.

“I was telling them, ‘I’m ready to go. We just gotta keep our blocks … y’all do that and I’ll make everything else happen,’” Grant said. “That’s what happened. I saw the hole and I bounced it outside and it was over with after that.”

The junior returner/receiver extraordinaire, picked up right where he left off in 2014 when Grant racked up 910 kick return yards to fall just 38 yards shy of the school record.

But Grant’s impressive season last fall, fell short when it came to returns for touchdowns and that all changed Saturday.

Lomax’s second half kickoff bounced around the Knight’s 18-yard line, causing some confusion for both those blocking for Grant and those in pursuit of him. But the junior remained poised, scooping the ball up before bursting through the first two levels and then he was gone.

Grant gave a glimpse into what he was feeling when he crossed the goal line.

“I felt a great relief,” Grant said of the moment he hit pay dirt. “It was real good, you know. I was hoping I would get a touchdown — I wanted another one — but I was able to get that one and I’m happy with that.”

Flood is just happy to have a game-changing player like Grant, not only on offense, but on special teams as well.

“He did it again today on special teams and he's going to have a big role as a wide receiver for us, as well,” Flood said. “He's one of those players that every time he touches the ball, he's got an opportunity to score.”

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


Kevin Xavier

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