Carroo reemerges for Rutgers despite offense's late mishap
While it likely did not determine the outcome at High Point Solutions Stadium Saturday night, Chris Laviano's 4th-and-21 spike into the block "R" at midfield with three seconds left on the game clock drove a stake through the Rutgers football team's hopes for a monumental upset over No. 4 Michigan State.
"(Laviano) did what he was told to do," said an emotional interim head coach Norries Wilson after the 31-24 Scarlet Knights (2-3, 0-2) loss.
But it is more probable that the winner was chosen as a result of something other than the missed opportunity to throw a prayer of 50-plus yards with no time left on the clock.
"It would have been a 70-yard Hail Mary," Laviano said. "It sucks that we didn't give ourselves a chance, but it didn't — that wasn't the reason we lost the game."
Maybe a more plausible scenario was the Knights' offensive inefficiency on third down, coupled with the Spartans crucial third down conversions.
After entering the game as the Big Ten leader in third down efficiency at 50 percent, Rutgers registered a ratio of 25 percent, while Sparty (6-0, 2-0) recovered from a 1-for-4 start, to rattle off 10 first downs in MSU's final 13 third down tries.
“We weren’t able to execute as a team," said junior linebacker Steve Longa. "And that’s what happened."
With the score tied 24-24, under four minutes remaining, Michigan State faced a 3rd-and-9 from its own 25-yard line.
Spartans senior quarterback Connor Cook slung a 50/50 ball up for receiver RJ Shelton, who stretched over sophomore safety Andre Hunt to make the catch.
"I just threw it up there for him to make a play and he made it. It was a grown man play," Cook said. "It was plays like that you see in the NFL. Guys going up and over the top and making a play like that instead of waiting for the ball. That was just a hell of a play.”
The pass-and-catch went for a 29-yard pickup, propelling Sparty into Rutgers territory.
Eight plays later, LJ Scott plowed into the end zone on a three-yard run to give MSU the lead for good.
"We weren't able to stop them on third down," Wilson, who requested blame for the Knights blunder on their last offensive play. "It comes from taking away a chance to win from some guys who played real hard."
Norries Wilson was on the verge of tears in his postgame press conference as he shouldered the culpability for the Knights' misguided spike on their final play from scrimmage.
It was a bitter ending to Wilson's head coaching tenure, and he took the time to let the players in the locker room know that this loss was on him.
“He’s a head coach that shows a lot of emotion," said senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo. "He wanted this game for us and he was proud of the way that we played. It made him very emotional."
Once Wilson was overcome with sadness at the postgame podium, a pin drop could be heard in the team room as reporters silently watched.
His record leading the Knights may read 1-2, but the team that played under his direction was demonstrative in its support for the man filling the role for suspended head coach Kyle Flood.
"You felt like that last play hurt him," said redshirt-freshman strong safety Kiy Hester. "I felt that too."
Hester's first-career interception helped swing the momentum Rutgers's way in the second quarter. But in the end, it was tough for the Plainfield, New Jersey, native to get excited when he knew his coach was hurting.
"That just shows how much love he has for us and how much we fought for him and all the guys in the room. We fought for each other," Hester said.
Wilson's willingness to throw himself under the bus for the failed final play was as sincere a gesture as it gets. He bit the bullet and accepted responsibility in a Rutgers football season infamous for irresponsible behavior.
"They put themselves in a position to have an opportunity to tie the game and win the game and that was taken from them," Wilson said. "And fair is a four-letter word like some of those other words you can't use on TV, but it ain't fair."
Leonte Carroo is back — and it didn't take him long to let the 50,373 fans in attendance for the Blackout know it.
Rutgers's all-time leader in receiving touchdowns (25) showed no rust against Michigan State in his return to the field. After his indefinite suspension was lifted on the heels of simple assault charges on Oct. 6, Carroo carried the Knights' offense against the Spartans.
The senior captain reeled in three touchdowns out of a career-high seven receptions and totaled 134 yards in his first game since Sept.12.
But for the All-Big Ten wideout, his play was par for the course.
“Bottom line is I’m a competitor," Carroo said. "So I was going to go out there and play as hard as I can no matter what the situation was."
Four seconds into the second quarter, with Rutgers down seven, Laviano found Carroo on a five-yard touchdown pass over the middle of the north end zone to tie the game up at 7-7.
One minute and 45 seconds later, the pair discovered pay dirt again on a 39-yard touchdown where Laviano hit No. 4 in stride to give the Knights a 14-7 lead as "Carroo" chants rained down from the home crowd.
Rutgers's top-target rounded out his day with a clutch 28-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter to bring the Knights within three at a 24-21 deficit.
Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio knows a thing or two about talent — just check his resume. When it came to Carroo, the two-time Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year couldn't deny his playmaking ability.
“Carroo makes some big plays," Dantonio said. "Some of it was him, some of it was on us. But there’s no question he makes some big plays."
The Don Bosco Prep (New Jersey) product said he was eager to get back on the field to help his teammates, but his expectation was to come back with a bang.
"No matter what game I came back, I was gonna approach the game the same way, " Carroo said. "That’s exactly what I did tonight.”
Despite the 31-24 loss, Rutgers can take solace in the fact that its superstar wide receiver has returned.
“Most importantly, I was excited to get out there for my teammates. I’m a captain, and I know at the end of the day, they want me out there," Carroo said. "They were excited I was back, and I was gonna do anything I could to perform at a high level for them.”
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