Late turnaround leads Rutgers to 25-point comeback at Indiana
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Kyle Federico might have been the hero on his game-winning field goal to seal the Rutgers football team’s 55-52 comeback thriller over Indiana in front of 40,567 at Memorial Stadium, but the overall special teams play had its ups and downs over the course of the game.
Before the senior place kicker split the uprights on his 26-yarder as time expired, two of his extra point attempts were blocked up the middle by the Hoosiers field goal defense.
As the Scarlet Knights (3-3, 1-2) began to claw their way back into the game in the late third quarter and early fourth quarter, head coach Kyle Flood went for the 2-point conversion on consecutive point-after-attempts, and failed on both tries.
On both blocks, the Hoosiers (4-3, 0-3) swarmed up the middle on a pair of low kicks from Federico to alter Flood’s decisions on potential 2-point conversions.
“I just felt like, in terms of possessions, I couldn’t guarantee we were gonna get as many stops as we did,” Flood said. “So I started going for two a little earlier than normally I would. (The decision) probably could’ve come back to get us, but it didn’t. We were fortunate to kick the field goal at the end.”
While both frustrated Rutgers on special teams as Indiana’s offense continued to rack up the points at the time, Federico remained calm before drilling the kick that mattered most. Immediately afterward, a swarm of white jerseys poured onto the field as his teammates celebrated the walk-off win.
“I made no adjustment whatsoever — just did what I had to do because that’s another thing going on in your head,” he said. “You’ve got the game on the line, and what’s the point in over-thinking things? Just kick the ball.”
But Federico’s game-winner wasn’t the only game-changer for the Rutgers special teams unit.
Early on, Flood brought out the bag of tricks with Sam Bergen’s 15-yard run on a 4th-and-8 from the Rutgers 27.
Directly after the sixth-year senior fullback moved the chains on his first-career carry, sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano hit senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo on a 58-yard bomb downfield to provide a quick punch with 12:50 remaining in the second quarter.
And when the Knights desperately needed a spark later on in the game, they took full advantage on a botched snap from Indiana to start the fourth quarter.
Eric Toth mishandled the long snap and sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay led the special teams stampede 26 yards the other way for the scoop-and-score to narrow the deficit at 52-39 with 14:50 remaining in the ballgame.
“It was a timely play and picking up a fumble is not something that’s always easy to do,” Flood said. “We practice it during the week and … it looked like he picked it up pretty clean and did a nice job of getting into the end zone. It was a big play … when you’re down that many points, you need some quick scores and that allowed us to get one.”
As much as the tides turned with the injuries drowning the Rutgers defense, Steve Longa refused to abandon ship.
Medical personnel helped the junior weak side linebacker off the field after he appeared to have tweaked his right foot in the first half, but Longa didn’t leave for long.
Even after Indiana looked primed to run away with the game after Devine Redding rumbled for a 66-yard touchdown run to burst the floodgates open at 52-27 with 5:05 left in the third quarter, Longa kept coming back out to lead the Knights’ defense when he was needed most.
“I had to lead my defense out there. I couldn’t just leave those guys out there to play by themselves,” he said. “They deserve to have me out there and deserve me to give them my all, and that’s what I was trying to do.”
A hobbled right foot didn't hold him back. Longa was all over the field for Rutgers, racking up a game-high 16 tackles — 11 unassisted — to accompany senior strong side linebacker Quentin Gause’s tie for a career-high 10 tackles and anchor the front seven.
Redding’s big run was the Hoosiers’ last explosive. After surrendering 28 straight points to open the third quarter, the Knights kept it there and gave the offense a chance before completing the eventual comeback with 28 unanswered points to end the game.
“It was a party, man,” Longa said of the postgame celebration. “I wish we would’ve had champagne. We would’ve been popping it everywhere.”
The overall effort of the team tying the largest comeback in program history — a mark set in last year’s 41-38 season finale where Rutgers overcame a 25-point deficit — might have merited an ecstatic locker room environment.
But the argument is also there that Longa’s heroics, which delve deeper than the numbers that already jump off the stat sheet, deserve similar recognition.
“I was trying to do what I’m supposed to do, do my job. And by doing my job, plays came to my way and I try to make a play — and I made a lot more than I missed,” Longa said. “(Teammates on defense) deserve me fighting out there with them. I don’t wanna leave them by themselves. I don’t want them to have all the fun. I’ve gotta get a piece of it.”
During the first week of training camp, senior running back Paul James told The Daily Targum he believed Rutgers boasted the best tailback group in the Big Ten.
There has been enough evidence to support that claim and the impact it has had on Laviano’s progression game-by-game, but it was sophomore running back Robert Martin who emerged as the headliner of the group on Saturday in Bloomington.
The Knights have been running with a fair distribution between James, Martin and sophomore Josh Hicks. But they have been overall hesitant to alter their approach and feed the hot hand.
That all ended when Martin got going — and kept going — to run all over Indiana for a season-high 124 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries.
Flood broke down the decision at his postgame presser to keep feeding the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, native, citing the momentum that Martin embodied as Rutgers mounted its comeback.
“We moved away from (the rotation). We felt like Robert was feeling it more than anybody," Flood said. "You know how I feel about those guys. I think we have four running backs in that room that’ll help us win every game and I think they did today, but Robert got hot today. There’s no question about it.”
Flood later mentioned that he still felt confident in James and Hicks sharing reps with Martin in the rotation moving forward. James finished with 42 yards on six carries, but the numbers were skewed with his 40-yard score to tie the game back up at 52 apiece with 6:29 left in the fourth quarter.
While the offensive line paid its dues in paving the way with openings for running room off the line of scrimmage, Laviano raved about Martin’s vision out of the backfield to make the most out of every carry he was given.
“Rob (Martin) was just making himself holes,” Laviano said. “I mean, the offensive line blocked great all day in the pass and run. They gave me enough time to do what I had to do, but Rob (Martin) is a really great player and just made his own holes and he just — he would never stop fighting. He’s just one of those backs that’ll just keep going.”
Keith Lumpkin did more than enough to provide that push for all running backs in Rutgers’ rotation, but the senior offensive tackle mentioned a few key characteristics that set Martin apart from the rest with qualities of a feature back.
“Rob (Martin), he’s a hungry guy. He’s so hungry. His passion for the game is out of this world,” Lumpkin said. “And when he gets his chance, he’s gonna do what he can, give it his all, give it his best and that’s all he gives every day, every time we hit the field.”
After sitting out the past two games for Indiana with an ankle injury, Nate Sudfeld did just about everything to torch the Rutgers defense.
Out of the Hoosiers’ up-tempo spread offense, the gunslinging quarterback led the high-octane attack with 464 yards on 22-of-32 passing through the air and five total touchdowns.
But on both sides of the ball, the Knights held two answers.
When it mattered most, a thin secondary for Rutgers made the big plays. Redshirt-freshman Isaiah Wharton’s jumped route sparked the series of stops, followed by junior free safety Anthony Cioffi baiting the throw on a deep ball up the seam to force Sudfeld into his second interception in the span of two drives.
And Rutgers cashed in, turning both turnovers into points on the other end of the field to fuel the 55-52 comeback.
“It’s adjustments, it’s guys making plays,” Flood said. “I know Isaiah (Wharton) made an interception and then on the first play of the next drive, Anthony (Cioffi) had an interception. We were closer on some others earlier in the game and others we weren’t, but I think it’s just a matter of continuing to compete and it’s not easy to do. It takes tough-minded people and I think we have that.”
Despite Sudfeld’s gaudy numbers, Indiana was held to a grand total of 25 yards of offense in the fourth quarter. Rutgers, meanwhile, capitalized with 16 of its 22 points in the fourth quarter, coming on offense after three straight defensive stops.
“His arm strength is huge. It was a big-time quarterback, big guy, big body and was tough to bring down,” Cioffi said of Sudfeld. “But we stuck to our script, we did what we had to do and we stayed on the same plan.”
On the other side of the ball, Laviano went punch-for-punch with his counterpart, ultimately out-dueling Sudfeld down the stretch.
One week after his 4th-and-20 spike spoiled Rutgers’ near-upset of then-No. 4 Michigan State, Laviano calmly conducted the game’s final drive.
He even did it without his favorite target as Carroo left the game and did not return after a 43-yard touchdown catch in double-coverage where the senior wide receiver landed awkwardly on his right foot.
“It’s important to not force anything in that particular situation,” Laviano said of the 13-play, 59-yard drive to win the game. “… Obviously, that led us to bring the ball down … and ultimately just let Kyle (Federico) win it for us.”
In his fifth career start, Laviano went 28-of-42 with a career-high 386 yards and three touchdowns to lead a passing game detrimental to giving Rutgers a chance in the shootout. His 386 yards tied him with Mike McMahon (Oct. 18, 1997, at Army) for fifth in the program's single-game passing record books.
Flood, watching Laviano along the sidelines in his first game back from a three-game suspension, said he was impressed with his sophomore quarterback’s progression and poise from start to finish.
“Chris (Laviano) did a good job — and there’s some throws he can make that he didn’t make today. I think when he looks at the film he’ll see that,” Flood said. “But just like the rest of the team, he continued to play and down the stretch he finished.”
Although he didn’t need Carroo to ultimately retake the lead and the game, that doesn’t undermine the senior wide out’s eye-popping play.
Carroo continues a historic tear for Rutgers on offense with his game-high three receiving touchdowns and 157 yards on seven catches.
In just 3.5 games or 14 quarters played, the Edison, New Jersey, native now has a trio of three-touchdown efforts against Norfolk State, then-No. 4 Michigan State and Indiana, respectively.
It’s hard to explain just how Carroo has been able to shred opposing defenses this year, even after his suspension kept him out for an entire month. But the senior captain still doesn't focus much on the absurd numbers.
“I’ve just been doing my job, just going out there and listening to Coach each and every week, stringing good days of practice together and then ultimately coming out here and just playing well,” he said.
Flood gave praise to all receivers in Laviano’s arsenal, but made note of Carroo’s clear impact on the game leading up until he was removed.
“Part of the reason we were in a place to make the comeback was because of Leonte (Carroo),” Flood said. “… The more plays you make in a game, the more confident you become.”
Flood said he would supply an updated injury report for the Knights next game sometime on Monday as they get ready for No. 1 Ohio State (7-0, 3-0), but Carroo made it clear that it will take a lot more to keep him out of a matchup with the defending National Champions.
“I was just seeing what was ultimately wrong with me. My medical staff does a great job taking care of me, so I’m fine,” he said. “… I’ll definitely be playing next week.”
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