Rutgers deflects fears, marches into hostile environment for Halloween showdown with Wisconsin
If last weekend’s 49-7 blowout loss in front of a sellout crowd at High Point Solutions Stadium to No. 1 Ohio State was frightening, then things have the potential to become downright terrifying on Halloween when the Rutgers football team plays its next game.
The idea of taking on Wisconsin (6-2, 3-1) in itself isn’t the scary part. Under head coach Kyle Flood, the Scarlet Knights (3-4, 1-3) have it drilled in their heads to approach each week as the beginning of a new season and improve to 1-0 with a win over the given opponent on the schedule.
But when noon ET rolls around on Saturday, the matchup slated for a national television broadcast on Big Ten Network could have heavy implications on the fate of Rutgers as it trudges deeper into the gauntlet of its 2015 conference schedule.
And while the Badgers have been on the outside looking in at the AP Top 25 since their 10-6 loss to an undefeated Iowa team, now ranked No. 10 in the nation, Flood knows what type of program awaits out in Madison.
“What we are looking at right now are match-ups against a really good Wisconsin team: a defense that's eighth-ranked nationally in total defense (279.9 yards per game), in rushing defense (97.3 yards per game), fourth in red zone defense (69.2 percent), second in scoring defense (11.1 points per game),” Flood said. “So we're going to have to do a great job of focusing on that.”
The only other loss for Wisconsin on the season was a 35-17 defeat at the hands of Alabama, now 7-1 and threatening to crack the College Football Playoff as the No. 7 team in the country.
While the Badgers have been battered by injuries up and down their roster — namely in star running back Corey Clement (questionable, groin) and starting quarterback Joel Stave, who was cleared of a head injury earlier in the week — that doesn’t change their head-to-head advantage against the Knights.
The stout defense Flood mentioned that nears the top of the country in just about every category imaginable — a unit led by a top outside linebacker tandem in Vince Biegel and Joel Schobert — with the look of a 3-4 scheme presents potential problems for Rutgers along the line of scrimmage.
Sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano, who appeared for the Knights in last year’s 37-0 shutout loss on Homecoming in Piscataway, let both the numbers and his past experience speak for themselves.
“Obviously, the statistics prove that they’re playing really good football right now,” Laviano said. “They’re fast and they’re smart in the secondary.”
In order to keep the second-year signal-caller protected, senior left tackle Keith Lumpkin addressed the need for the Rutgers linemen to stay entrenched in their assignments against the blitz schemes that the Badgers could unleash.
The 3-4 look stretches four linebackers across the defense with three linemen in the trenches. Along with the regular look of a middle linebacker, weak side linebacker and strong side linebacker, the scheme throws a pass rush specialist into the mix with a fourth linebacker, known as the “Jack.”
“We’re so used to seeing 4-3, an even front,” Lumpkin said. “So when you go to odd, you just gotta be honed into where’s the ‘Mike,’ where’s the ‘Jack,' where’s the ‘Will’ and where’s the ‘Sam,’ so you just gotta know you gotta block on each play. And if you do that, it just comes down to the physical part after that. I think we’re fully confident in the physicality part.”
Adding a capacity crowd of up to 80,321 into the mix doesn’t make any part of it easier.
The last time the Knights played on the road in a similar environment was in their 28-3 loss at Penn State, where the third-largest crowd the program has ever played in front of at 103,323 at Beaver Stadium evidently played its part on the outcome of the game.
Understanding that a rowdy crowd at Camp Randall Stadium might create an identical frenzy, Flood said Rutgers would likely adapt with the use of a silent count on offense to keep the unit structured and get plays off on time.
“From what everyone tells me, there will be a need for a silent count,” Flood said. “I think, nowadays, offenses have evolved where it’s not really unique anymore. It’s something we practice a lot starting at training camp and I think we function well with it. So I’m not concerned with it.”
Lumpkin expects Rutgers to maintain its focus, especially along the line of scrimmage where it matters most in the pre-snap process.
“You know they’re gonna be loud. That’s something you expect already, so it shouldn’t be a shocker when you get there,” Lumpkin said. “We’ve just gotta be locked into our assignment. Let the guy playing play and let the fans do what they do best.”
For Laviano, who makes his seventh career start as the Knights close out the month of October, all eyes — and most of the pressure, fair or not — expect to fall on the sophomore as he looks to lead the offense back to its position of once standing as the No. 2 scoring unit in the Big Ten.
Right now, it still remains to be seen if Rutgers can rise to the occasion and counter Wisconsin’s swarming defense by putting points on the board in a hostile environment.
But when Laviano crouches under center, there’s one element in particular that he expects to return to the offense when the Knights head into battle at Camp Randall.
“I just think we got away from that fire that we had in Indiana. It just wasn’t all there at Ohio State, and it was easy to tell. It’s not a secret,” Laviano said. “We just have to get back to playing with fire and confidence and making fast decisions at the line after the ball’s snapped. All of that stuff kind of factors into it.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.