Rutgers returns home to tackle Jayhawks
The Rutgers football team could use a little home cooking.
After opening the season with an emphatic 63-13 win over Norfolk State, the Scarlet Knights have stumbled since, losing back-to-back games with a 37-34 heartbreaker to Washington State Sept.12 and a 28-3 blowout loss in the Big Ten opener last week at Penn State.
Since the season opening win, the Knights have also lost their head coach Kyle Flood and top wide receiver, senior All-American Leonte Carroo, to suspensions.
But this week Rutgers will return to the Banks for homecoming against Kansas with a window for interim head coach Norries Wilson to get his team back on track.
“It’s never as good as you think, it’s never as bad as you think,” Wilson said after practice Wednesday. “You just go in and watch the tape and make the corrections.”
Rutgers might hope the corrections come quick.
Believe it or not, heading into the fourth game of the season, the Knights have already moved into must-win territory.
Looking at the schedule before the season began, the scheduled games against No. 1 Ohio State, No. 2 Michigan State, No. 22 Wisconsin and Nebraska could be thrown out. Rutgers is realistically not ready to win those games in 2015 with the offensive firepower those Big Ten teams provide.
That leaves Penn State, Indiana, Michigan and Maryland, along with the remaining non-conference schedule including the Jayhawks (0-2) Saturday and Army in November. The Knights need six wins to become bowl-eligible. After losing to Penn State, they'll need to win four-of-five to clinch their 10th bowl appearance in 11 seasons.
With the distractions swirling around the program over the last month, Rutgers needs a win Saturday to keep the hope of a successful season alive.
“You can’t control anything that happens off the field,” said junior weak side linebacker Steve Longa. “What we control is what we do on the field, how we go about our business from the time the last game starts to the the time we kick off. That’s what we control.”
Longa leads Rutgers and stands tied for fifth in the Big Ten in tackles this year with 26, but that’s no surprise considering he has led the team with 100-plus tackles in each of his first two years on the Banks.
The timing of homecoming couldn’t be more perfect for the Knights. They host a Jayhawks team that is winless through two games this season, giving up 48 points per contest.
And as Rutgers is reeling from a dismal performance on both offense and defense against Penn State, a visit from Kansas could be just what the doctor ordered.
“I think winning always makes things a little better. That’s what winning does.” Longa said.
Junior wide receiver and return man Janarion Grant was a non-factor for the Knights in their loss to the Lions just one week after he housed two kicks for touchdowns against Wazzu.
Grant said he is chomping at the bit for an opportunity on homecoming after the Nittany Lions chose not to kick to him. One week after setting the program's single-game record for all-purpose yards with 339, Grant managed just seven yards on returns.
“It’s fun, there’s a lot of fans there,” Grant said of the atmosphere on homecoming. “But you just gotta worry about the game because that’s the only thing that’s gonna matter.”
It is the third homecoming game for both Longa and Grant. The pair of juniors expect the High Point Solutions Stadium to be rocking come kickoff at noon Saturday.
“Homecoming is always cool because there’s a lot of fans, a lot of students that come out to watch the game and they get really loud,” Longa said. “They enjoy the game, they get really excited and that’s what homecoming does. It gives you that home field advantage that you need but to a different level.”
The Saddle Brook, New Jersey, native compared homecoming to a primetime matchup with a rival, the type of game where players get a little extra energy from the excitement of the home crowd.
“When you have a big game, the student section, it’s packed, they get crazy,” Longa said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing — we know (the students) are going to be there and it’s going to be crazy-packed.”
After bringing three kicks back to the house in the first two games, Rutgers' speedster was quiet last week, but it may be no coincidence that Grant’s three touchdowns all came at home.
The dreadlocked junior admits he is eager for a chance to catch a kick. When asked if he could see himself returning another one for a touchdown Saturday, Grant grinned ear-to-ear.
“Always. That’s what I envision each and every day, the night before the game, on gameday — that’s what I think about,” Grant said. “Just seeing the hole. If it’s a tough hole making guys miss, bouncing it to the outside. If it’s straight away, I’m just going to take it straight, just hearing the crowd screaming and yelling when I run it into the end zone.”
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