Freshman safety makes splash for Rutgers in second start
With six minutes remaining in the first half, the Rutgers football team held a tenuous 14-10 lead over then-No. 4 Michigan State.
After the Spartans marched 68 yards down the field, following wide receiver Aaron Burbridge's diving catch near the sideline, Sparty set up first-and-goal at the Scarlet Knights' 8-yard line.
It was a familiar storyline for college football fans. The decided underdogs jump out to an early lead and show some fight before the favorites shake themselves and rally to put the game out of reach before halftime.
But redshirt-freshman Kiy Hester wrote a different script last Saturday night at High Point Solutions Stadium.
“I saw No. 3 (LJ Scott) and (quarterback) Connor (Cook) staring him down so I just broke on the ball," Hester said. "He pointed at him, kinda like a scramble drill. And that’s when I just ran to his hip, I saw him throw it and I jumped in front of it.”
The rookie safety jumped the route and tipped the ball in the air before collecting it to his body and dragging both feet along the back of the end zone to ensure the interception, the first of his collegiate career.
In Hester's first-career start against Kansas on Sept. 26, the strong safety was unable to haul in two would-be interceptions.
During the week leading up to Michigan State, he predicted he would get his hands on the football against the Spartans.
And the Rutgers rookie defensive back delivered on that promise.
“It felt good," Hester said of his first-career pick. "I should've had two, two weeks ago."
The takeaway allowed Rutgers to retain the 4-point lead heading into halftime.
Interim head coach Norries Wilson saw Hester's pick as a pivotal play that helped the Knights maintain momentum, while keeping MSU off the scoreboard.
“It was very important. That was a big third down play," Wilson said. "It got the defense off the field and stopped a going-ahead drive or an opportunity to kick a field goal to make it 14-13. So I thought that was a huge turnover for us to get.”
Unfortunately for the home team, the upset bid was quelled when Cook orchestrated the game-winning drive with 43 seconds left on the game clock. Scott dove into the end zone from three yards out to put Sparty ahead for good, 31-24.
“It’s tough, you know,” Hester said. “Coach is always telling us, ‘You have to play four quarters,’ and that’s what it came down to, the last two minutes. You’re upset you know, you played a great team, the No. 4 team in the country and you were just so close.”
But the progress of the young secondary has shown in each game and veteran leaders on the Rutgers defense have noticed.
“It’s hard," said junior defensive tackle Julian Pinnix-Odrick. "Coming from a guy who — I redshirted my second year, so I didn’t play until my third year and I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to jump in there in a game my freshman year — that’s a lot of pressure on those guys and I think they’re handling it well."
After filling in for his former high school teammate, junior Davon Jacobs, Hester has made the most of his opportunities in 2015.
Through his first four games, he has 19 tackles (15 solo) and one for a loss to go with the interception. He ranks seventh in the Big Ten with five passes defended.
This week, the Miami transfer finds himself listed as questionable on the injury report with a lower body injury.
Whether he is able to go against Indiana this Saturday in Bloomington or not, the interception was a big step for the Plainfield, New Jersey, native. And he doesn't expect his progress to be halted here.
"I’m gonna be around the ball a lot," Hester said postgame. "There’s definitely positives but we still lost. As long as I’m reading my keys and executing, all four quarters, every game, I'm gonna be around the football.”
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