Rutgers unravels despite junior's record day
Even after Janarion Grant literally did it all, that still wasn’t enough.
The junior wide receiver rattled off two electrifying returns for touchdowns to aid a struggling offense. He set the Rutgers football team’s single-game record for all-purpose yards. It came to the point where head coach Kyle Flood might have wanted to consider throwing him behind center.
But as much as the Scarlet Knights’ return man spun, juked and sprinted all over the field in a dire effort to will his team to its second win of the season, the end result wasn’t what he had in mind.
As a result of spotty defense, careless penalties and sloppy turnovers, Rutgers fell to Washington State, 37-34, Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium.
Rutgers (1-1) committed 11 penalties for 100 yards — most of which came during the game’s final stretch late in the fourth quarter. That, combined with three turnovers, is a recipe that head coach Kyle Flood knows won’t win football games.
“It's disappointing. The players who got called for those penalties are experienced guys,” Flood said. “… But I think the turnovers, to me, are an even bigger factor. Now, you get penalties that take away touchdowns and that's a huge, huge impact on the game but the turnovers to me are the first place I look.”
As much as Chris Laviano initially struggled to sustain drives on offense, the sophomore quarterback eventually eased his way into enough of a rhythm to give Rutgers more than enough chances to take a contest that Washington State (1-1) was virtually begging the Knights to take.
In his first career start, Laviano completed 23-of-29 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown to sophomore tight end Matt Flanagan on a play-action pass from one yard out of the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter.
But for the Glen Head, New York, native, his earlier mistakes came back to haunt him.
When he was flushed out of the pocket by the Cougars’ pass rush, Laviano looked clueless at times. His interception — and first incompletion after starting 5-for-5 — in the first quarter came on a sidelines heave that landed in the hands of Mar Pippins at the Rutgers 36-yard line. That led to a field goal to put Washington State up, 10-0, early in the second quarter.
Then, rolling out to his right, Laviano’s attempt to throw the ball out of bounds failed when he lost his grip and fumbled at the Cougars’ 36-yard line.
Washington State made the most of that mishap, too, when Luke Falk found Keith Harrington on a five-yard swing pass out of the backfield moments later to put the Cougars up, 20-6, with 8:55 to go in the third quarter.
“We can’t make as many turnovers, as I did, to win the game,” Laviano said. “So, we need to get those things corrected and move on to the next week and the next game.”
Then Grant took the game into his own hands. On the ensuing kickoff, the Trilby, Florida, native tied his career-long of 100 yards on a return where he danced his way through the Cougars’ kickoff team and tight-roped his way down the sidelines to bring the crowd back into it.
Then he did it again.
After Falk’s 23-yard touchdown pass on a jump ball to Gabe Marks gave the Cougars a 30-27 advantage with 9:31 to go in the fourth quarter, Grant managed to one-up his first return.
After the Knights came together to force an enormous three-and-out with no timeouts left, Washington State dared to kick it to Grant.
And as much as the Cougars’ gunners won the coverage battle in order to get within yards of him as the end-over-end kick fell into his breadbasket, Grant elected not to call a fair catch.
Instead, he spun a defender out of his shoes and snaked his way around the kicking team to somehow find the end zone on an electrifying 55-yard punt return to give Rutgers the 34-30 lead right back with 1:31 to go in the ballgame.
Grant, who set the Knights’ single-game program record with 339 all-purpose yards, didn’t even know how to describe it.
“It happens so quick. I can’t even explain it to you,” Grant said. “I just react to it, so it’s all about reaction-wise. I make that one player miss and then it’s just out of the gates from there.”
Racking up five catches for 65 yards and taking a jet sweep for 21 yards on the ground, Grant’s production didn’t stop there. Grant admitted that the career day would still be enjoyable despite suffering what he described as a heartbreaking loss.
“Yeah, because I played my part. I played my heart out,” he said. “But at the end, you know, it all depends on the team and we didn’t come out with the win.”
Up four, the Cougars had no option other than to get into the end zone. When sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay jumped offside on a 4th and 10 from the Rutgers 43-yard line, Falk made the Knights pay.
On a much more manageable 4th and 5 from the 38-yard line, Falk hit Robert Lewis over the middle for a 12-yard gain to keep the drive alive.
Moments later, even after Harrington’s circus touchdown looked like it might have won the game, further review revealed that the Washington State running back stepped out of bounds back at the 21-yard line.
But as many second chances Rutgers received, the team still couldn’t manage to get out of its own way. And with 13 ticks left, Falk pierced the Knights’ armor with a dagger eight-yard floater in the back of the end zone to River Cracaft to seal the ballgame.
“There's always going to be emotional swings in a close football game and you have to be able to refocus and do your job,” Flood said. “It's one of the things as we coach players through their careers that we try to emphasize.”
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