Rutgers aims to reenergize offense with explosive plays
In its sophomore season in the conference, the Rutgers football team has lacked the explosive plays that became a staple of its inaugural Big Ten.
Yes, the Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) rang up more than 500 yards of offense twice this season. But one time came against an FCS opponent in Norfolk State and the other against Big 12 basement-dweller Kansas.
The reason for the recession lies in plain sight.
Remove one All-American receiver and captain in Leonte Carroo and a four-year starter at quarterback in Gary Nova. Replace them with unproven backups and a sophomore in his first year as starter under center at the collegiate level.
Then take your X-factor, junior Janarion Grant, bottle him up neatly on special teams. Now you have the perfect recipe for regression.
Grant has been relegated to fair catches and touchbacks after returning three kicks for touchdowns in the first two games of 2015.
But the downward trend for Grant and the offense could see an uptick Saturday, starting with the reinstatement of last season’s second-most explosive receiver, Carroo, who averaged 19.7 yards per catch one season ago.
Carroo earned All-Big Ten accolades last year in addition to his All-American nod in the preseason after he racked up 1,086 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 2014.
And now he’s back, although it is unclear if the school’s all-time leader in touchdown receptions (22) will play Saturday as a spokesperson for the team told The Daily Targum he would have “nothing new to report until later,” a reference to Rutgers final preparatory practice Thursday.
But the Knights' top target was not on the practice field Wednesday, which leaves him little time to prepare for the matchup with No. 4 Michigan State on Saturday night at 8 p.m.
Some have speculated Rutgers’ lack of downfield throws have posed little danger to opposing defenses, allowing them to stack the box against the Knights, walking safeties down to the line of scrimmage to protect against the run.
A glance at the numbers could bolster that hypothesis. Last fall, the Knights had four offensive plays go for more than 50 yards through the first four games. This season they have two — a 55- and 56-yard touchdown catch and run by Carroo in week one.
But interim head coach Norries Wilson attempted to dispel the “vanilla offense” theory at practice on Wednesday. He said the absence of field-stretching plays is more a result of circumstance than the game plan.
“I won’t say that there has been a lack of a vertical passing game,” Wilson said. “We’ve called some throws down the field. If the quarterback sees someone underneath and takes it, we’re happy with the completion if it’s gonna help us move the chains.”
Wilson’s assertion is evidenced by quarterback Chris Laviano’s league-leading completion percentage (72 percent, fifth in the country) and his second-best pass efficiency rating (148.5), which falls a little more than two points behind his opposite number this week, Michigan State senior quarterback Connor Cook.
The saving grace for Rutgers offense is the success of the run game. It has been proven time and again that when the Knights get the ground game going, the offense is efficient as a result.
“When you can run the football, a defense can’t just be one-dimensional and just line up and come after the quarterback,” Wilson said. “You also wanna have a great running game to support your passing game and we’re hoping to have that again this Saturday.”
Junior wide receiver Andre Patton, who has taken over the No. 1 receiver role during Carroo's absence, said that if the Knights can get it blocked, they have the ability to throw deep.
"It affects the timing,” Patton said of a pass rush. “We just have to handle that up front. If our O-Line can handle that up front then ... there should be no reason we should have shorter routes.”
After a visit to Big Ten Media Days in late July, Carroo created a buzz with his rose-studded suit, a proclamation of his aspirations for a Rose Bowl appearance for Rutgers in 2015.
After the first day of training camp, Carroo held court.
“I know they’ll be following my lead,” he said of the younger receivers. “Ultimately, my goal is just to have a 10-win season and play in a Rose Bowl.”
In order to accomplish either or both, the Knights need to win out. But the focus for this week is squarely on the next team on the schedule.
The Spartans (5-0, 1-0) make passage to the Banks with all the ingredients for an upset special. MSU narrowly escaped defeat to 21-point underdog Purdue last week (24-21) and the primetime tilt against the team from Piscataway will feature a raucous crowd of Rutgers fans, packed into High Point Solutions Stadium tighter than a suitcase destined for a semester abroad.
It’s the annual Blackout Game, a newfangled tradition that should draw close to 50,000 fans.
But in order for Wilson’s warriors to rinse the stench of a 45-3 defeat to Sparty last season in East Lansing, Rutgers will need to make some plays down the field.
“Coach McDaniels and the rest of the offensive staff have put together a plan we think is best for us to take advantage of what Michigan State does on defense,” Wilson said. “And there are some vertical throws in that plan.”
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