Rutgers preps for athletic defensive end in Shilique Calhoun
The best always want to beat the best.
One look at the conference schedule for the Rutgers football team reveals a gauntlet of games against polished opponents.
The Big Ten Conference boasts five teams ranked in the most recent Associated Press Top 25, with the Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) facing two of the AP's top-five over the next three weeks with upstart Indiana (4-1, 0-1) sandwiched in between.
As the leaves turn and the temperature drops, the Knights battle No. 4 Michigan State in the annual Blackout Game Saturday night at High Point Solutions Stadium — their biggest test thus far this fall.
The Spartans (5-0, 1-0) storm the Banks with one of the best defenses in the country that includes a physical front seven and top-flight talent in the secondary. Together, the tandem has tallied 18 sacks this season and leads the conference with 11 takeaways.
But if Rutgers interim head coach Norries Wilson could write down one player that must be contained, it's New Jersey's own, fifth-year senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun.
"That guy that can rush the passer pretty good," Wilson said of Calhoun. "We know he's a good player, he's a real good player and we've got to make sure — we've got a good idea we know where he's going to be."
Sparty’s two-time All-Big Ten selection and 2013 conference Defensive Lineman of the Year has collected 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in 2015. The Middletown, New Jersey, native is the type of talent that can wreck a game.
Measuring in at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Calhoun has the speed to bend the edge and the strength to bull rush the Big Ten's biggest offensive lineman.
"We've got to make sure that whoever's going against him is going to have to fight and strain and compete against a real good player," Wilson said of No. 89 in green and white. "I think when you're a college football player, that's what you want to do, you want to play against good people."
After allowing five sacks against the league’s sack leader, Penn State (21), on Sept. 19, Rutgers refined its pass protection against Kansas a week later on Sept. 26 in the Knights' last game prior to the bye week.
The Jayhawks were unable to get to Rutgers sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano, as the Knights' offensive lineman kept their quarterback’s jersey clean.
But Rutgers isn’t playing Kansas anymore, instead the Knights draw a perennial powerhouse Spartan team, led by two-time Big Ten Coach of the Year Mark Dantonio.
"You can't play confidently as a quarterback unless you have trust in the offensive line and vice-versa,” Laviano said. “We all lean on each other and we'll be alright."
Senior Keith Lumpkin and junior Chris Muller have anchored Rutgers offensive line for the last three years. Lumpkin has started 30 consecutive games at left tackle and Muller has a streak of 17 straight starts at right guard.
Lumpkin, who will be tasked with blocking Calhoun when lined up opposite him, complimented Michigan State, saying the whole defense is impressive, not just the defensive line.
The Montclair, New Jersey, native feels the best weapon to combat the Spartans potent pass rush, is the Knights punishing ground game.
"You don't want to get in third-and-long situations you want third-and-short obviously,” the 6-foot-8, 325-pounder said. “So we just gotta start the run game early."
For Muller, Michigan State’s entire defense jumped out on film.
“They’re not complacent with where they are which shows a lot about their heart and determination,” Muller said. “They are always trying to out-effort the person across from them.”
Lining up at right tackle and also assigned to block MSU’s best pass rusher is junior J.J. Denman. Denman has started all four games at the position in 2015, after rotating in and out last fall.
The Pennsbury High School (Pennsylvania) product agrees with Lumpkin, saying Rutgers will need to rely on the running game to jumpstart the offense and keep both the Spartans' line and Calhoun at bay.
“It’s something we try to do every game, run the ball. It our starting point as an offense,” Denman said, while welcoming the challenge of a top-five team. “(MSU) is definitely the best team we’ve seen so far and these are the games you look forward to."
Calhoun didn’t play in his team’s win when the two schools met last November, a 45-3 drubbing in East Lansing, Michigan. This season, Wilson sees no secret in the problems Calhoun poses his offense.
“He's sudden, and when I say sudden, he's got a good get-off. He's long,” Wilson said. “He's got speed and he can turn the corner fast. You put all those things together and he can get up the field and get after people really quickly.”
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