Junior linebacker writes storybook script for Rutgers
Early in the second quarter of the Rutgers football team's game against Indiana last week, linebackers Steve Longa and Quentin Gause converged on quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
Longa arrived first, but was unable to wrap up the 6-foot-6 signal-caller. And when Gause joined the party, he ended up landing on his junior teammate's legs.
Longa was immediately helped off the field, but he returned soon after.
With under three minutes remaining in the half, the Scarlet Knights' weak side linebacker brought down running back Alex Rodriguez after an 8-yard gain for his seventh tackle of the game. But Longa visibly struggled to get back to the defensive huddle, as middle linebacker Kaiwan Lewis virtually carried him back to the Knights' side of the line of scrimmage.
It appeared as if Longa wouldn't make it through another play, let alone remain on the field the rest of the game.
"I'm coming back to the sideline and I see him grimacing," said junior defensive tackle Julian Pinnix-Odrick. "I see the pain in his face and I'm just like, 'He's doing it,' you know? He wants to be out there."
When he first went down, Longa had three tackles. He finished the quarter with nine.
The player redshirt-freshman safety Kiy Hester, called "the heart and soul of the defense," refused to let the pain impede his production.
Instead, true to form, Longa collected seven more tackles, en route to a career-high for a single game (16) and Rutgers roared back from 25 points down to hand the Hoosiers a bitter 55-52 defeat.
"I think it's a testament to the type of guys we have in the (locker) room and type of guys we have to look up to," Pinnix-Odrick said.
It was a heroic performance for one of the top defenders of the program, vaulting Longa to the top of the Big Ten Conference in tackles per game (11). His teammates took notice and followed Longa's lead.
"It was the kind of thing you see in the movies," Pinnix-Odrick said. "He's out here grinding and the least I can do as his teammate is to do the best that I can for somebody who's going to give that much for me."
Longa's 66 tackles in six games are only one fewer than league-leader Raekwon McMillan of Ohio State, who's played in seven. The Cameroon native stands second in the nation in solo tackles with 45 this season.
"He's a very productive player," said head coach Kyle Flood. "He's been a very productive player for a long time."
Flood has the luxury of a constant at the linebacker position ever since Longa broke out with 123 tackles in his freshman year on the Banks.
The Saddle Brook High School (New Jersey) product never experienced a sophomore slump. A move from middle linebacker to the weak side forced Longa to make adjustments, but he still managed 102 tackles in 2014.
"As I tell the players, ‘There’s nothing more valuable in life than consistency,'" Flood said. "When you look at every postgame and you look at the stats, he’s consistently at the top of that tackles list."
It would seem odd for Rutgers defense to have reason to celebrate after giving up 52 points through two and a half quarters, but when things got hairy, the Knights hunkered down. Rutgers rendered Indiana's offense indisposed the rest of the way, holding the Hoosiers scoreless for the remainder of the game.
"We just had to do our job basically. We let up a lot of big plays," Longa said. "It was nothing crazy. It was just us not putting our eyes in the right place."
There were no specific adjustments or change in tactics responsible for the dramatic turnaround, Longa said.
"We just had to talk about it," he said. "And after we did that, we came back."
As uplifting as the Indiana win was, the Knights will not be the team carrying the most momentum this week.
No. 1 Ohio State arrived in Piscataway riding a 20-game win streak dating back to last season. The Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0) continue to power through every opponent set in front of them.
When the bright lights cast a halo over the field at High Point Solutions Stadium Saturday night, the home team defense needn't look any further than Longa for inspiration and leadership.
The junior is listed as probable on Rutgers injury report and is expected to make an impact. His track record this fall reminds fans and media alike that Longa is an elite player, registering a sack and three tackles for loss along with leading the league in tackles per game.
But for Flood, this comes as no surprise. He has seen Longa put the work in — not only on gameday, but throughout the course of the week.
"He does that because he prepares the right way," Flood said of Longa. "He does that because he’s been blessed athletically, he runs very well. And he puts in the work during the week to make sure he can have the right reactions on gameday.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @KevinPXavier and @TargumSports on Twitter.