Rutgers may rely on special teams to upset No. 4 Michigan State
There is no better time than the present.
The Rutgers football team has built a reputation for its special teams play since the Greg Schiano era began in 2001.
The Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) have been able to rely on consistent play from their placekickers over that span and this season, junior wide receiver Janarion Grant has made a name for himself as one of the premier kick returners in the nation.
And the Knights have also been known to get their hands on several field goal attempts and punts.
Over the last seven seasons, Rutgers has blocked 42 kicks, by far the most in the country, including at least four kicks every year since 2007, according to the team’s media guide.
But in 2015, the Knights’ block party has been relegated to perpetual postponement.
As No. 4 Michigan State rolls into town Saturday, Rutgers is a decisive 17-point underdog and in these “David vs. Goliath” matchups, typically special teams play an enormous factor.
In other words, if Rutgers has eyes on an upset, a blocked kick or kick return for touchdown could be its best chance to slay the Spartans (5-0, 1-0).
Suspended head coach Kyle Flood has paid particular attention to special teams during his four-year tenure in Piscataway, pointing to the senior leaders on the team this fall as contributors on special teams in years past.
“The conversation I have with all the players who play as true freshmen is ‘you’ll be amazed at how quick those careers go when you play (special teams) as a true freshman.’” Flood said during training camp. “A guy like Leonte Carroo, Kyle Federico and Darius (Hamilton) were the three players in that class in 2012 that played as true freshman."
With Carroo still serving an indefinite suspension and Hamilton out for the season with a lower body injury, the Knights will have to look elsewhere for performers in the third phase of football.
And although they have yet to block a kick, interim head coach Norries Wilson is encouraged by how Rutgers has forced the opposition to refine its kick coverage.
“Well, we haven't blocked a kick but what we have done is we've got an average punt against in the low 30s, so people are cognizant of our ability to block punts and kicks,” Wilson said at his weekly press conference Monday. “We've altered some punts just with our ability to block.”
Unfortunately for the Knights, the book is out on Grant.
After returning a kick and a punt for touchdowns against Washington State on Sept. 12 en route to setting a new school record for all-purpose yards with 339, teams have kicked away from the Big Ten’s leader in kick return average (33.5 yards per return).
The Trilby, Florida, native came to understand that his ability to return kicks isn’t all about taking it back to the house.
“It’s very important because once we have a big run, I can put my offense in great field position,” Grant said.
And if he catches the kick in the end zone?
“I’m always willing to take it out, but I gotta listen to what the coach says," Grant said. "I’m always looking to take back kick returns.”
Federico has been relatively steady for Rutgers in 2015, having converted on 75 percent (3-of-4) of his field goals and all but one of his extra points, which coincidentally was blocked by the Cougars in the 37-34 heartbreaker that began a two-game losing streak for the Knights.
The senior trains in the offseason with former Jacksonville Jaguars placekicker Mike Hollis near Federico’s hometown in Ponte Vedra, Florida.
With the forecast for Saturday night’s Blackout Game against MSU is calling for temperatures in the upper 40s, the conditions aren't exactly ideal for a placekicker. But Federico says mechanics and form are what determines whether a kick splits the uprights or misses wide, not the weather.
“Even though it’s in Florida, it’s indoors,” Federico said of his training facility. “Because (Hollis) wants you to focus on the form. Everything you do is the form and that’s what’s going to make the product.”
Rutgers fans are hoping that Federico will need to focus on his form in a crucial situation Saturday, but for Wilson, the tilt against a titan of the Big Ten won’t alter the team’s preparation.
“All of us would love to block a punt. Blocking a punt changes the game. But we concentrate every week in special teams,” Wilson said. “So that won't change and we just have to go out and execute and try to get some plays, some big plays to come from the special teams.”
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