Rutgers returns to winning ways with 27-14 homecoming victory over Kansas
PISCATAWAY — The key to the game was no secret.
In the aftermath of last Saturday’s 28-3 mess of a loss at Penn State, the Rutgers football team knew what had to be done in order to put an end to the nightmare that the past few weeks have been for the program.
After the Nittany Lions pounced for 330 yards and four touchdowns on 41 carries last week in Happy Valley, the Rutgers defense was in for an even bigger test with an up-tempo Jayhawks attack known for spreading the ball out and mixing up its looks in the read option.
But the Knights were more than ready for the ground game — on both sides of the ball.
Behind a rejuvenated front seven on defense and a refreshed two-headed running back attack on offense, Rutgers bounced back with a 27-14 homecoming win Saturday afternoon in front of 46,136 at High Point Solutions Stadium.
It was the first homecoming win for the Knights since Oct. 15, 2011, when they beat Navy, 21-20.
Avoiding what would have been a disastrous fallout to one of the bottom feeders of the FBS in the Jayhawks (0-3) — largely considered the worst team in all of the power-five conferences — left Rutgers in a positive position heading into its Oct. 3 bye week.
“It wasn't pretty,” said interim head coach Norries Wilson. “Kansas did some things that got us off-schedule. But we shot ourselves in the foot with a couple penalties, turnovers but a quality opponent. They made big plays on us. The defense stood up a few times and got them stopped.”
Rutgers (2-2, 0-1) made use of the trademark ingredients to its recipe for winning football games with the revival of the running game boosted by sophomore tailbacks Josh Hicks and Robert Martin.
Add the scarlet and white “throwback” uniforms worn from 2007-11 and Piscataway began to feel the nostalgia of its ground-and-pound roots.
After the Knights struggled mightily with 43 yards on 32 carries at Penn State, they turned the tables against the Jayhawks for 312 rush yards on 58 carries.
Hicks, who found the end zone twice for his second multi-touchdown effort of the young season, ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 21 touches.
When he was asked how those totals felt, Hicks repeated the number rhetorically and grinned.
“Three-hundred twelve rush yards?” Hicks said. “I would say today was a good day — today was an awesome day for us. None of this couldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the O-Line doing good jobs, making holes and making sure that we have space that we can run through.”
Despite his second fumble of the season when he coughed up the ball in the third quarter, Hicks added to his strong case for more touches out of the backfield.
With the help of Martin’s 102 yards on 17 attempts, Hicks created separation for Rutgers. The two sophomores fed off each other, with Hick’s one-yard dive at the 2:39 putting the Knights up, 20-7, right before the end of the first half.
Then, in the third quarter, offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels kept running it right down Kansas’ throat.
Hicks found the end zone again, capping a 12-play, 84-yard drive with 11 runs on Rutgers’ first possession of the second half with a four-yard scamper past the goal line to extend the lead to 20. That put the Knights up, 27-7, with 9:24 to go in the third quarter.
“Me and (Martin), we’re like best friends,” Hicks said. “He’d give ... a real good run, I would have a real good run. It’s competing. He wants to be the best and I want to be the best, and it’s just like an uphill battle.”
The Jayhawks, on the other hand, couldn’t get anything going. Entering the contest with 239.5 yards per game on the ground, Kansas posed a legitimate threat to a defense that got steamrolled seven days ago.
But Steve Longa and the Knights had other plans. The junior weak side linebacker anchored a swarming run defense that held the Jayhawks to 64 yards on 29 rush attempts.
Ke’aun Kinner, who entered Saturday with consecutive 100-yard clips on the ground, finished with two touchdowns on a two-yard plunge with 6:07 remaining in the second quarter and a one-yard dive at the 2:05 mark in the third quarter. He was the only Jayhawk to get Kansas on the board.
But at the end of the day, even he was limited. The junior tailback mustered 1.5 yards per carry after 23 yards on 15 attempts.
Longa, who was his usual self with 11 tackles, set the tone for a tenacious front seven.
“The coaching staff did a good job of trying to work, trying to simulate what (Kansas) did (at practice earlier in the week),” he said. “… It forces us to go as fast as we can. We made mistakes, but the tempo was good. That’s why we was able to come out here and play like we did.”
Longa attributed his tie for the game-high in tackles — he now leads Rutgers with 37 on the season — to clear vision on the read option.
“Just trust my reads,” Longa said. “Been doing this (game preparation) since Sunday, watching film a lot, a lot of film and trusting my reads … just go where you’re supposed to go. Let everyone else do their job and do your job. I was just trying to do my job and doing my job made me get these 11 tackles.”
With the running game back to normal on both sides of the ball, all that was left for improvement was Chris Laviano.
The sophomore quarterback bounced back against the Jayhawks behind a balanced rushing attack, going 18-of-25 for 201 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Laviano’s legs did some of the work as well, scrambling eight times for 49 yards.
He got the Knights on the board early with a 14-yard fade to the corner of the end zone for junior wide out Carlton Agudosi to go up, 7-0, before the end of the first quarter with 1:49 remaining.
Then, after his first interception intended for sophomore tight end Charles Scarff was picked off by Greg Allen in the back of the end zone at the 11:06 mark in the second quarter, middle linebacker Kaiwan Lewis snagged Deondre Ford’s pass over the middle to give the Knights a second chance.
And Laviano made the most of it.
The Glen Head, New York, native took advantage of the short field, connecting with sophomore tight end Matt Flanagan from seven yards out on a rollout to his right just three plays later. Senior placekicker Kyle Federico’s extra point failed on a botched snap that that holder, and senior punter, Joey Roth couldn't handle to put Rutgers up, 13-0, with 9:24 remaining in the first half.
Wilson set his quarterback straight after Laviano heaved the ball off his back foot and rolling to his right when Scarff was in blanket coverage. After Wilson called the sophomore’s effort “up-and-down,” Laviano said the interim head coach reiterated the need to stay focused despite the poor decision.
“(Wilson) just said, ‘Stay in the game. I know you can make smart decisions, just make them,’” Laviano said. “And I started playing better.”
With next Saturday off, Rutgers gets all the time in the world to prepare for its annual Blackout Game when No. 2 Michigan State comes to town Oct. 10.
As the Big Ten gauntlet commences, the Knights will be fighting an uphill battle every weekend. But with Saturday's win stopping the bleeding, things are looking better than they have in recent memory for Rutgers.
“To a point, yes. Must-win because I didn't want to go into a bye week on a three-game losing streak and everybody getting in their head,” Wilson said. “We wanted to win the football game to make us feel good going into a bye week and know that we can go out and beat a quality opponent and get ourselves ready for the next opponent.”
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