Rutgers falls to No. 4 Michigan State on bizarre finish
PISCATAWAY — After everything the Rutgers football team had done to set itself up for an opportunity to shock the world with an upset over No. 4 Michigan State, the Scarlet Knights literally threw the final shot right into the ground.
With zero timeouts at his disposal following a 25-yard completion on third down to junior wide receiver Andre Patton, sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano bought some time with a spike on first down before an incomplete pass on the next play intended for sophomore tight end Charles Scarff.
With the ball in Spartans territory and down by seven, Rutgers primed itself for an opportunity to take a shot or two at the end zone.
But when Malik MacDowell dropped Laviano for the signal-caller’s third sack of the night on a 3rd-and-10, the clock continued to run and chaos ensued.
In the midst of the madness including coaches barking orders, players scrambling around the field and the crowd of 50,373 at High Point Solutions Stadium yelling frantically, Laviano lined the Knights up and spiked the ball on 4th-and-20 from the 50-yard line.
The blunder on the final play summed up what the 2015 season has become for Rutgers (2-3, 0-2) in a 31-24 heartbreaking defeat to Michigan State in the annual Blackout Game on Saturday night.
“I got sacked and then I looked over to the sidelines. Coaches told me to spike it,” Laviano said. “… After I got up, I looked over to the sideline. It was still third down on the sticks. (The coaches) told me to spike it and I spiked it. … For whatever reason, we all thought it was third down and it wasn’t. I just did what (interim head coach Norries Wilson) said to do.”
Wilson, who broke down the final play in an emotional opening statement at his postgame press conference, took on every last bit of the blame.
“At the end of the game, the clock management is 100 percent on the guy in charge and I'm the guy in charge. So I mismanaged the situation,” Wilson said. “Chris Laviano did what he was told to do and I told him the wrong thing. So don't think that he screwed it up. ”
Prior to the last-minute desperation drive for Rutgers, the Spartans (6-0, 2-0) drove 76 yards downfield in 10 plays to take a 31-24 with 43 seconds left in the game.
LJ Scott, who capped the drive with a three-yard touchdown plunge, came on late for a resurgent rushing attack in the second half with 42 yards and two scores on nine carries.
Add in Connor Cook’s 357 yards, two touchdowns to his one interception through the air on 23-of-38 passing and the Michigan State offense ultimately proved too much when it mattered most.
“Man, tough one we let slip away,” said junior free safety Anthony Cioffi. “I mean, we made a lot of stops, we scored. … They made one more play than us.”
As much as the Knights did to turn up the heat on a prolific passer with a sack from junior weak side linebacker Steve Longa and eight quarterback hurries, Cook did his part to break the backs of an already-depleted secondary by converting 11 of 17 third downs.
Rutgers, which struggled mightily on third downs (3-for-12) after entering the primetime tilt atop the Big Ten in the category (23-for-46), finds the latest falter tough to swallow after lively spurts on offense.
For the first time this season, Laviano didn’t turn the ball over. He tossed three touchdowns and 208 yards on 15-of-24 passing.
He even flashed the ability to make big plays happen against an aggressive Spartans secondary. Laviano tossed a 39-yarder down the sideline to a streaking Leonte Carroo for the score in the second quarter and a 28-yard floater to the front corner of the end zone to the senior wide receiver near the end of the third quarter.
The duo ignited a normally conservative offense accustomed to short strikes after Carroo snagged a five-yard strike over the middle to tie the game up at 7-7 at the 14:56 mark on the first play of the second quarter.
But late in the fourth quarter, Carroo couldn’t haul in a fourth touchdown that would have given the Knights a crucial lead.
Arjen Colquhoun did enough on the coverage to break up the back-shoulder pass intended for Carroo and Rutgers settled for a 22-yard chip shot to tie the game up at 24 apiece.
“I mean, it’s a football game,” Carroo said. “I made a bunch of great plays tonight and (Laviano) made his great plays. So (Colquhoun) did a good job playing it and he deflected the pass.”
Despite his reemergence with seven receptions for 134 yards and three touchdowns in his first game since Sept. 12, Carroo was a non-factor in the final drive with zero targets.
Heading into the midway mark of the 2015 slate with a road contest at Indiana (4-2, 0-2) next week while No. 1 Ohio State (6-0, 2-0) and No. 18 Michigan (5-1, 2-0) wait in the wings, the Knights find themselves nearing a pivotal point in the season.
And if Rutgers can’t put the pieces to the bigger puzzle together soon, Longa’s analogy of the latest loss might describe his team’s consequences most fittingly.
“We didn’t just play well. I mean, we (are) a team,” Longa said. “It’s like a chain in a bicycle — one link is missing, so if that’s messed up, you can’t ride your bike anymore. So we weren’t able to execute as a team and that’s what happened.”
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