Rutgers defensive backs brace for top-flight passing game
For the first time in more than a month, the Rutgers football team has a reason to be excited.
The Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) announced Wednesday that star wide receiver and team captain Leonte Carroo was reinstated after serving an indefinite suspension as a result of simple assault charges that were ultimately dropped.
Interim head coach Norries Wilson announced on Thursday that Carroo will play Saturday night when the Knights host No. 4 Michigan State for the annual Blackout Game at High Point Solutions Stadium.
But the enthusiasm will be tempered quickly. Rutgers runs into its biggest challenge yet this fall — corralling the potent passing attack senior quarterback Connor Cook and the Spartans (5-0, 1-0) bring to the Banks.
"They're good up front so they do a good job protecting Cook,” Wilson said. “Cook's a very good quarterback that can fit the balls into tight spaces."
Cook isn't just the best quarterback the Knights have seen this season. He's the best in the Big Ten and arguably the best player taking snaps from center in the country this season.
His 195.4 passing yards per game may not jump off the stat sheet, but Cook's 10 touchdowns to one interception certainly do.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound signal caller leads the Big Ten in pass efficiency with a 150.9 quarterback rating and his 59.7 percent completion percentage stands sixth in the conference.
But the Hinckley, Ohio, native’s poise in the pocket, coupled with his experience as a three-year starter, is what makes the MSU offense so difficult to defend. The Knights youth in the secondary doesn't make matters any easier for Rutgers.
After the arrests and dismissal of three potential starters prior to the season opener against Norfolk State ravaged the defensive backfield, freshmen have been forced into the starting secondary.
Rutgers has started freshmen cornerbacks Isaiah Wharton and Blessuan Austin in all four games this fall. It will likely remain that way for the rest of the season.
"My coach tells me all the time there's a reason I'm sitting in the cornerback room," Wharton said after practice Wednesday. "He brought me to this conference for a reason."
The learning curve has been steep for Wharton and Austin. As a whole, the Knights' defense has yielded 274 passing yards per game to opponents thus far. That mark is highlighted by a 478-yard performance from Washington State quarterback Luke Falk on Sept.12.
Cook crashes the Banks with a premier pass-catcher at his disposal. Senior wideout Aaron Burbridge has racked up 414 receiving yards this fall on 25 catches, punctuated by four touchdowns.
By comparison, that’s 233 yards more than any other Rutgers receiver and 13 more receptions than any Knight on the roster — a gap so wide that the margin eclipses junior Janarion Grant's team-leading 12 receptions for Rutgers.
Wharton knows that if Rutgers wants to be successful in slowing Sparty’s receivers, each defender needs to lockdown his man.
For Wharton, no challenge stands out above another.
"It's all tough,” the redshirt-freshman said. “I mean, this is major college football. They like to go deep. They have a very good run game that you have to respect, so you just gotta execute your assignment and do your job."
Wharton will look to his safeties, the quarterbacks of the secondary, for defensive calls. The redshirt-freshman credited his teammates on the interior for his progression as a player.
"I have veteran safeties, (Anthony) Cioffi and Davon (Jacobs), and they help me each and every day," Wharton said. "So they've made the ride a lot easier for me."
Cioffi has been the one constant at the safety position this season. Sliding inside from cornerback at the behest of now-suspended head coach Kyle Flood, Cioffi has demonstrated ballhawk instincts in the first quarter of the 2015 campaign.
The Springfield, New Jersey, native’s two interceptions land him in fifth place in the conference. His 17 tackles lead all Rutgers defensive backs and stand fourth on the team overall.
But as far as Saturday goes, the strong safety spot remains unclear.
Jacobs, also a junior, was the starter for the first three games of the year before being held out against Kansas two weeks ago with an upper body injury.
It appears the bye week didn’t restore his health entirely. The DePaul Catholic (New Jersey) product is listed as questionable on this week’s injury report.
"The injury report is what it is. We gotta coach the guys that show up out there," Wilson said.
Jacobs’s likely replacement is his former high school teammate, redshirt-freshman Kiy Hester. The Miami transfer shined in his first career start Sept. 26 against the Jayhawks, registering nine tackles (six solos), including one for a loss and two pass breakups in his debut.
The Plainfield, New Jersey, native now sits seventh in the Big Ten in passes defended per game after his breakout performance in the 27-14 win over Kansas.
But Hester was unable to hang onto two would-be interceptions against Kansas — opportunities he refuses to forget.
This week, Hester smells a shot at redemption for Rutgers.
"I feel like I'm gonna be around the ball a lot,” Hester said Wednesday. “I just gotta put my nose in there, that's the main thing I'm worried about, putting my nose on the ball and just swarming."
Wilson has been encouraged with the progress his young defensive backs have shown, witnessing incremental gains with each practice and each game.
And when the bright lights come on for Saturday night's Blackout, Wharton says he’ll be ready for the primetime tilt against the Spartans powerful passing attack.
"Of course,” Wharton said. “Top-five team in the country, 8 o'clock, our place — I mean, that's what every football player dreams of.”
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