Rutgers aims to cage Badgers' pass rush in Madison
Second time's the charm?
The Rutgers football team arrives in Madison, Wisconsin, this weekend hoping to tame a Badgers defense that is second-best in the nation in points allowed at 11.1 per game.
In the first meeting between the two, Wisconsin spoiled Homecoming for the Scarlet Knights, stifling Rutgers' offense in a 37-0 rout on a rain-soaked Saturday afternoon last November.
The stakes will be raised this time around for the Knights with Rutgers sitting three wins shy of bowl eligibility, with five games left to play, as they head to Camp Randall Stadium to take on the Badgers in front of a raucous "Dub Nation" crowd of 80,000-plus.
Wisconsin has proven the ability to wreck a game with two of the Big Ten's best pass rushers in senior linebacker Joe Schobert and junior linebacker Vince Biegel.
"(Schobert) is a veteran player, he’s physical with his hands, you know, he sheds good," said Rutgers senior left tackle Keith Lumpkin. "He's a typical speed rusher-type, outside linebacker, him and Vince Biegel. They both do a good job of doing their assignment and maintaining the edge."
Schobert's 14.5 tackles for loss leads the league. The 6-foot-2, 236-pounder stands second in the conference with 9.5 sacks heading into Saturday's matinee matchup in Madison.
Biegel is far from playing second fiddle to the NFL Draft prospect in Schobert. The junior has tallied three sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss of his own, likely a result of the effort he exudes from his 6-foot-4, 246-pound frame.
Junior J.J. Denman will be the other offensive tackle charged with shielding sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano from the UW pass rush for the Knights. He sees the edge-bending outside linebackers as equal threats.
“One of the key guys on their defense is Schobert and Biegel as well. They’re both great pass rushers,” Denman said. “They work hard and play hard and you can tell they never take a play off. It’s a good challenge for us and I’m excited.”
Whether it’s Rutgers 6-foot-8, 325-pound left tackle Lumpkin or the 6-foot-6, 305-pound right tackle Denman, if the Knights want to have success, they’ll need to keep Laviano’s jersey clean.
“We gotta do a better job of (protecting the quarterback),” Lumpkin said. “We gave up a couple sacks (last week), during the season a couple hurries and hits. We just gotta do a better job of protecting him. You can see that when we’re protecting him, he’s top in the Big Ten in completions or whatever, it is so we just gotta do a better job of keeping him upright.”
On the other side of the ball, the Rutgers defensive pass rush has remained relatively dormant in 2015. The Knights have totaled just 11 sacks through seven games this fall and if ever there was a time to get after the quarterback, it would be this weekend at Camp Randall.
The Badgers' offensive line is young, starting three freshman, leading to nearly two sacks per game this season.
Flood downplayed the youth along Wisconsin’s offensive line while doing his best not to outwardly toss bouquets at the Badgers.
“I've been through that before and I know what that's like,” Flood said. “I think if you watch their film and you watch their players through the year, you can see their players are getting better. So it's going to be something we are going to have to do a good job with on third down.”
After leaving last week's game against Illinois with a head injury, Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave has passed all concussion protocols and is cleared to play Saturday.
Stave brings veteran leadership to an offense known as a perennial powerhouse on the ground, armed with ball-carriers Corey Clement — who will be encountering an old friend Saturday — and Dare Ogunbowale.
While Clement has been sidelined most the season with a groin injury (he is listed as probable this week), Ogunbowale has rushed for 524 yards on 11 carries in his new role as Wisconsin's featured back. In order to slow the run game, the Knights need to apply pressure in Stave's face.
That pressure will permit the boys from the Banks the opportunity to walk defensive backs down to the line of scrimmage to stack the box against the Badgers run game.
The statistical leader of the defense, junior weak side linebacker Steve Longa will play a vital role in bringing down Wisconsin's backs should they break through to the second level.
From atop his perch as the Big Ten leader in tackles — and the country in solo tackles — Longa feels the chess game between Wisconsin's offense and Rutgers' defense will be decided in the trenches.
"We need our D-Line to be disruptive," Longa said. "If we do that, the quarterback isn't going to have the time to look left-right, left-right and we make it one-dimensional. They're gonna have to run the ball so they can protect their quarterback."
Sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay has been slowed by an upper body injury most the year after earning Freshman All-American honors for his 7.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss a season ago. Turay is the team's leader, but his two sacks are a far cry from his sensational rookie season in 2014.
"I'm able — or capable — of helping my team out to the best of my ability," Turay said. "I'm just going to consistently continue what I've been doing. Even though I haven't been getting sacks, I’m capable of doing my job and I’ll do whatever it takes. If that’s getting a sack, there I am.”
Sackless in his last three games, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound "Kemoko Dragon" will need to break his shackles if Rutgers wants to increase its chances to move within striking distance of a bowl game.
Asked if he sees himself bringing Stave down in the backfield Saturday, Turay answered emphatically.
“Yes,“ he said. "I have that same mentality since day one — still trying to get after the quarterback. Even though I haven’t or even though I’m touching the quarterback from the backside or I’m almost there. I’m just gonna keep on working till I get there."
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