Rutgers aims to score early, generate pass rush on road at Wisconsin
After licking the wounds left from a 49-7 defeat at the hands of No. 1 Ohio State last Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium, the Rutgers football team has quickly turned its attention to this week's game. It won't get much easier for the Scarlet Knights (3-4, 1-3) as they travel to Madison this Saturday to take on Wisconsin.
The Badgers (6-2, 3-1) welcome a Knights team that failed to score until 13 seconds remained on the game clock against the Buckeyes. And Wisconsin boasts a defense that stands second in the nation in points allowed at 11.1 points per game.
When weighing these factors, it would behoove Rutgers to get some points on the board early at Camp Randall in order to build confidence against the Badger defense.
"It’s very important that we come out, start fast, execute and put up points early," said junior offensive tackle J.J. Denman. "We’ve had success in the games that we’ve done that.”
The Knights' starting right tackle is onto something. In Rutgers' three wins this season, it scored points on the first or second offensive series in each game. And in the tightly-contested battle with then-No. 4 Michigan State, the Knights also put up a crooked number in their opening drive.
On the flip side, in Rutgers' four losses, the Knights have come up empty in the early going.
“It's something you want to do,” head coach Kyle Flood said at his weekly press conference Monday. “Every drive that you start, you want to finish it in the end zone with points. I speak about that every week, the drive start in a game is so critical. We are going to start every drive with the idea that we are going to score.”
Junior Andre Patton’s season has been productive thus far, but the long and lean wide receiver didn’t come out guns blazing in terms of touchdowns. Patton’s 4-yard touchdown catch from Hayden Rettig in the waning moments of OSU’s blowout win was the Delaware native’s first in 2015, but he doesn’t think it affects the takeaway from the rout.
“I’m sure (anyone) wouldn’t want to not put points on the board,” Patton said Monday. “It felt pretty good, but we still lost.”
Rutgers’ players and coach were adamant at Monday’s media availability that the approach won’t be dissimilar from any other opponent the Knights have faced this season. But even Flood relinquished that an early touchdown would make the hill to climb at Wisconsin a little less steep.
“Would we like to (score) on the first drive of the game? Sure, we would, absolutely. But ultimately, will that be the determining factor in the game? No,” Flood said. “We are going to have to play 60 minutes to be 1-0 this week.”
Wisconsin has always been known for a powerful rushing attack. From Ron Dayne to P.J. Hill to Melvin Gordon, the Badgers churn out backs as easily as Dunkin Donuts sets up franchises.
This season Wisconsin has turned to second-stringer Dare Ogunbowale after the initial starting tailback, New Jersey native Corey Clement, has been out since week two with injury.
Although Wisconsin has generated 1220 yards on the ground this fall — led by Ogunbowale’s 524 yards on 111 carries — the Badgers have had trouble protecting the quarterback.
Wisconsin has allowed nearly two sacks per game through eight contests, giving the Knights defense an opportunity to take advantage of a young offensive line in a season where Rutgers has often failed to manufacture a pass rush.
“We won't do anything different than we do every week. We've got to look at the matchups up front and see if we can predict how they will protect,” Flood said.
Sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay leads the Knights with two sacks just a season after he set the college football world on fire with 7.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss en route to earning Freshman All-American honors. To put it into context, Turay has one-half sack more than junior free safety Anthony Cioffi.
“Pressuring the quarterback is something that's been important to us,” Flood said. “It's the way we play defense on third down. So we are certainly going to look to play defense that way this week.”
Junior Steve Longa has been the unquestioned leader of the defense in terms of production through seven games.
The weak side linebacker is now tied for first in the country in solo tackles (56) and stands second in the nation in total tackles (85), while leading the Big Ten Conference in both categories. Longa feels that if Rutgers wants to be successful in stopping the Badgers, the defensive line will be the key.
"It starts up front like everything. If the D-line does well, gets to the quarterback, the corners and the safeties can do a better job,” Longa said. "It always starts up front. They always get us going, and I know they're gonna do great job (Saturday)."
As tough as the Wisconsin defense will be to deal with, Rutgers should have the opportunity to throw the football. If you’re looking for a chink in the Badgers armor, or at least an area of the defense that is less strong, the pass defense could be the best option for the Knights to pick up yardage in chunks.
Wisconsin is allowing 182.6 passing yards per game, having not yet faced a potent passer in the first eight games this fall.
“The passing game helps the running game and it’s vice versa," said junior wide out Carlton Agudosi. "They're a strong defense and we’ve played a few strong defenses this year in Ohio State and Penn State. So the approach to the game as far as practice won’t be any different.”
Both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions’ defenses are at the top of the conference and near the top of the nation in terms of yards allowed, but Rutgers will take on arguably the best the country has to offer when they travel to Camp Randall. So when opportunities are presented, the Knights can’t miss.
Patton and Agudosi may need to embrace even larger roles on the road this week after Monday’s injury report revealed Rutgers leading receiver, senior Leonte Carroo, is questionable again with a lower body injury.
But the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Agudosi isn’t worried about filling big shoes. He’s been in this situation before and he knows the best thing he can do to help his team is his job.
“We just have to go out there and practice, have a great week, watch some more film, see the tendencies and try to attack them where we can," Agudosi said.
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