Rutgers quarterback earns first-career win, fuels fire for critics with decision-making at crucial times
On paper, Chris Laviano is one of the top-five starting quarterbacks in the Big Ten. The sophomore signal-caller earned his first-career victory Saturday, completing his season’s average, 72 percent of his passes in the Rutgers football team’s 27-14 homecoming win over an injury-riddled Kansas team.
But in person, Laviano looked lost at times for the Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1).
The sophomore did rely, heavily, on Rutgers' potent rushing attack, which tallied 312 yards at an average of 5.4 yards per carry, but he wasn't entirely passive in the passing game.
The Glen Head, New York, native went 18-of-25 through the air, for 201 yards and two touchdowns to bring his season's total to six touchdowns in three starts.
But that's just the box score.
In the eye test, Laviano baffled the Knights' faithful fan base, throwing a crucial, ill-advised interception — one of two on the afternoon — coming with Rutgers facing a third-and-six from the Jayhawks' (0-3) nine-yard line, likely costing the Knights precious points.
“He made a bad decision, and I told him he made a bad decision when he threw the pick in the end zone,” said interim head coach Norries Wilson. “I asked him if it was a good decision or a bad decision, and he said it was a bad decision. I asked him, ‘Can he give us better decisions?’ And he said, 'Yes.'”
The play came at the 11:17 mark of the second quarter with the home team up 7-0. Wilson had just called a timeout to make sure the offense was on the same page before the third down play would commence, less than 10 yards from pay dirt.
Laviano took the snap from junior center Derrick Nelson and soon discovered the rush bearing down on him at the top of his drop. The Rutgers quarterback slid left and went into a back pedal, before releasing the ball off his back foot while falling away from his target.
Kansas defensive back Greg Allen picked the errant throw off in the end zone and the Knights' streak of 10 consecutive conversions in the red zone was retired.
“I have to live to fight another down,” Laviano said of his fifth pick in four games. “I go game-by-game. I figure out after playing, after evaluating the film, what I did wrong and what I did well.”
Wilson thought Laviano improved as the game went on, after the interception quelled a quality drive.
“From then on, he strung together a bunch of good decisions,” the assistant head coach and running backs coach said. "And we are happy about that.”
But for Laviano, who will likely remain the conference leader in completion percentage, the pressure of the defense bearing down on him in the pocket is no excuse for poor decision making.
“When I get pressure like that, I have to throw it away or be smart with the football — or smarter than I have been playing," Laviano said. "But I’ll fix that, (I'll) watch the film and work on it hard for the next two weeks.”
Senior Kaiwan Lewis hadn't really stuck out on the stat sheet heading into Rutgers' homecoming matchup with Kansas Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium. Yes, his 17 tackles through three games put Lewis among the top-40 in the conference, but the South Carolina graduate transfer hadn't really made an impact to that point for the Scarlet Knights.
It was understandable, given the fact that Rutgers' starting middle linebacker had only been with the team for 47 days after NCAA rules required the grad transfer to remain off the field until training camp began — but that all changed against the Jayhawks on homecoming.
After Laviano abruptly ended a red zone opportunity by throwing an interception that Kansas caught in its own end zone for a touchback, two plays later, Lewis leaped at the chance to change the narrative of his first and only season for the Knights.
On a second-and-eight for the Jayhawks at their own 22-yard line, Rutgers' MIKE snuffed out a seam route over the middle, making the third interception of his college career and his first pick since arriving in Piscataway on Aug. 10.
“It was good just to make a play after something bad goes on, to make a play and help the team out,” Lewis said. “It’s good just to know I made a play to help my teammates.”
The Pleasantville, New Jersey, native’s performance was impressive for the day. Lewis had six tackles to go with the pick, including four solos, two quarterback hurries and a tackle for loss.
Rutgers' leading tackler, Steve Longa (37), who tallied 11 total tackles with 10 solos Saturday, talked about the contribution Lewis has brought to the defense. He said that the man who lines up next to him has been performing from his first day on campus.
“That’s not anything that’s surprising,” Longa said of Lewis’ coming out party. “Coming in, Kaiwan picked up play pretty fast. That’s why he’s able to be out there with us now. Showing up week one, week two, week three — he’s just getting better every week. He’s a great competitor. When we go out there we try to compete, and it’s fun having him out there right next to me.”
After his best day on the Banks ended, Lewis reflected on the difference between his feeling this week, a 27-14 win and last week, after leaving Happy Valley with a 28-3 loss to Penn State.
“It was more of an emptiness last week,” Lewis said. “I was probably worried about a lot more things that I wish I could of done, and now it’s kinda like I can move on and focus on this bye week. Right now, that’s the feeling. I’m happy we won.”
In the Knights' best rushing performance of the season the headliners were a pair of sophomore running backs, Josh Hicks and Robert Martin, who combined to run for 223 yards and two touchdowns at 5.9 yards per carry. But it was the reemergence of a senior late, that energized the 46,136 Rutgers fans in attendance at High Point Solutions Stadium in the fourth quarter.
Paul James had the worst showing of his career last week in State College, stumbling to a nearly stagnant 0.7 yards per carry with seven yards on 10 attempts.
But in the Knights' 27-14 win over Kansas, James had the best yards per rush average on the team, running for 57 yards and with that, Rutgers three-headed monster in the backfield was reborn.
In his postgame press conference, interim head coach Norries Wilson acknowledged the significance of getting the team’s current leader in career rushing yards back in the mix.
“It's important,” Wilson said. “It's very important for them all to be on their game and feel good about themselves. He averaged 6.3 a carry today, Paul did, and Robert averaged 6.0 and Josh had 5.4. That's a good across-the-board average for the three of them.”
James was just happy to contribute, saying that when all three backs get it in gear, they can can wreak havoc on opposing defenses. But the ever-gracious fifth-year senior captain made sure to credit the Knights' titans of the trenches as the ones responsible for Rutgers 312 rushing yards on the day.
“When we’re clicking on all cylinders, we’re gonna have big numbers,” James said. “I feel like we did a great job with the offensive line. They were pushing guys and opening the holes.”
The Glassboro, New Jersey, native was excited to earn his first win on homecoming since his freshman season, in his final year of eligibility. He lost to Kent State (35-26, 2013), Houston (49-14, 2013) and Wisconsin (37-0, 2014) in his last three seasons on the Banks.
“As a senior, it feels good to win this last one,” he said. “You know, come out here in front of the fans and bring this win — bring it back home and going into this bye week, it’s going to help out a lot.”
For the position’s coach, Wilson, the resurgence of Rutgers’ lone senior running back is a welcomed sign for his group of talented young tailbacks.
“To know that we can get that from any of the three of them when they go out there, that's fantastic and makes us confident and makes us more confident in who is out there at a given time," he said.
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