Rutgers' rushing attack proves productive through first two games
As bad as many college football and national media pundits want to make it out to be, the Rutgers football team has actually built a fair amount of positive momentum early in 2015.
Although turnovers have caused concern, on offense the Scarlet Knights (1-1) have been extremely productive in the first two games of their sophomore season in the Big Ten Conference.
That second year officially begins this Saturday as Rutgers travels to Happy Valley to take on budding rival Penn State in the conference opener for both teams.
The Knights mustered 941 yards of offense over the first two weeks, managing to average 48.5 points per game. But the biggest bright spot for the boys on the Banks is the production of the running game and its three-headed monster of senior Paul James and sophomores Josh Hicks and Robert Martin.
One of the biggest concerns for head coach Kyle Flood coming into the season was how the carries would be distributed in order for the stable of backs not only to stay fresh, but be satisfied in their contribution.
“I don’t think there’s roles,” Martin said. “I just think that there’s a little system that we have that says, 'The hot hand is going to get the ball.’ And we just gotta be ready when our name’s called to go in and do our job.”
Martin has been efficient through the first two games, gaining 130 yards on the ground, averaging 6.8 yards every time he totes the rock — the best average on the roster for any player with more than two rushes.
The Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, native is reassured by the fact that Rutgers can be confident in anyone who lines up behind sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano.
“I think it’s a good thing to know that there’s five good running backs in that room,” Martin said, making sure to include his injured teammate, junior Desmon Peoples, who led the team last fall with 447 rushing yards and junior Justin Goodwin, who has struggled to crack the rotation. “We just push each other day in and out at practice and we compliment each other good. When there’s one person in there doing good, we wanna come in there and do good as well."
Given how the last game between the Nittany Lions (1-1) and Knights played out — a 13-10 PSU win — on top of the loss last Saturday to Washington State at High Point Solutions Stadium, Martin said there seems to be a little more emphasis on the matchup this time around.
“It’s definitely a big game," Martin said. "It’s a conference game and we wanna make a statement this year. We’re a Big Ten team and we’re ready to play this season."
Hicks leads the team in rushing with 209 yards on the ground through two games and two touchdowns at a not-so-shabby, 6.1 yards a clip.
“It’s my job just to come out and run the ball to the best of my ability,” Hicks said.
The Palmetto, Florida, product proved his effectiveness against the Cougars, chewing up 91 yards on 16 carries. But his best run, a would-be 21-yard touchdown, was wiped away due to a holding penalty.
Penalties plagued the Knights throughout the contest, having 11 yellow hankies cost them 100 yards in total.
“It’s a shame, you know, the offensive line had way too many penalties,” said Chris Muller.
The junior right guard was a culprit on the Hicks score that might have been.
“We try and pride ourselves on being well-rounded players and penalties (are) just a lack of execution. We just have to work better on our fundamentals,” Muller said. “The refs call a fair game. You have to respect what the ref says.”
It would be difficult to have a story on the Rutgers running backs that didn’t mention the elder statesman in the room, Paul James.
The Glassboro, New Jersey, native’s career has been marred by injury. But thus far in the 2015 James said he's been able to stay healthy, absent the expected nicks and cuts that come with playing one of the most punishing positions in college football.
James is listed on this week’s injury report but hasn’t shown any concern about his fitness.
“It was just a couple bumps and bruises after the first game, nothing big,” he said.
The Knights had a significant amount of success in the ground game, utilizing the stretch play to take advantage of James’s vision in particular.
“I enjoy that play,” James said. “It really gives the running back the time to use their vision to see where the hole is going to open up and really let the play develop. It’s kind of like a patience play and that’s how I like, just to wait and see if the hole is there and once it’s there you just gotta accelerate through it and hit it and that’s how we get a lot of our big plays.”
But like anything else, tools have a need to be sharpened, so James’s attention to his self-proclaimed strong point isn’t something he only works at while on the field.
“Say I’m walking to class and there’s a group of people, I kind of just try to figure out the best way to get around them, like I’m running through a hole,” James said. “Especially being at Rutgers, there’s a lot of people. If I’m walking down the hallway with the football team or something, I’ll try to see the best way to go — focus like it’s a game right there.”
The Knights will rely on the running game to temper the hostile crowd expected to white-out Beaver Stadium on Saturday night, but that doesn’t mean the backs are feeling tension.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure, for real. We just have to stay focused this week at practice and do what we gotta do — I think people are amped up a little bit — but other than that I don’t think there’s pressure.”
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