Rutgers reaches pivotal point with crucial conference matchup at Indiana
If there is one positive to pick from the handful of questions surrounding the Rutgers football team as it enters the 2015 season’s halfway point, the focus is entirely back to what happens on the field.
Following the reinstatement of head coach Kyle Flood on and the return of star wide receiver Leonte Carroo last Wednesday, the Scarlet Knights (2-3, 0-2) will be at the closest to full force and normalcy when they face off with Indiana on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET.
With a less than favorable second half of the fall lingering as No. 1 Ohio State (Oct. 24) and No. 12 Michigan (Nov. 7) await with a road trip to Wisconsin (Oct. 31) sandwiched in between, the difference between evening the record back up at .500 and falling to 2-4 becomes monumental.
While Saturday’s 31-24 loss to then-No. 4 Michigan State stung for the Knights, Flood stressed the need for the team to wipe the slate clean for its next pivotal matchup.
“It’s gotta be a part of your culture. It’s gotta come from the seniors. It’s gotta come from the upperclassmen,” Flood said. “When you play in any conference or division as we do, you have to have the ability to turn the page because regardless of whether you were pleased or displeased with the result last week, the next team’s coming.”
As much as Rutgers clawed and scrapped its way to a strong showing in front of an energized crowd of 50,373 at High Point Solutions Stadium, the Blackout magic wasn’t enough to spark a second round of “Pandemonium in Piscataway.”
But some signs of the valiant effort do give reason to believe that the momentum is tilting in the Knights’ favor.
Coupled with a recent skid where the Hoosiers (4-2, 0-2) were most recently bounced out of Penn State in a sloppy 29-7 loss — similar to Rutgers’ 28-3 falter on Sept. 19 in Happy Valley — this game holds equal weight for both teams.
It’s hard to evaluate Indiana’s true identity, but that should clear depending on who lines up under center.
Hoosiers head coach Kevin Wilson said earlier in the week that he would split reps between senior Nate Sudfeld and sophomore Zander Diamont before leaving medical personnel to evaluate the two, but Flood reaffirmed that his gut feeling remains with Sudfeld getting the nod.
If the Indiana gunslinger mans the offense, Rutgers will need all of the help it can get in a secondary fighting through injuries and inexperience.
While junior Davon Jacobs (probable, upper body injury) looks like he could make a return at strong safety after sitting out the last two games in the past three weeks, the status of redshirt-freshman Kiy Hester (questionable, lower body injury) remains unknown.
Senior strong side linebacker Quentin Gause, who had a career-high 10 tackles and two for a loss last weekend against the Spartans, broke down the differences between the two quarterbacks in the early stages of film on Monday.
“(Sudfeld), he sits in the pocket a little bit more and he’ll sling the ball,” Gause said. “But like I said, we’re gonna be ready for both quarterbacks and get the ball rolling on those.”
As far as the Knights are concerned with their quarterback, some of the questions surrounding Chris Laviano seem to be dissipating.
Aided by Carroo’s stellar three-touchdown performance, the sophomore completed 15-of-24 passes for 208 yards before his fourth down spike erased any shot of the last-second upset.
But Flood, who said offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels and assistant head coach Norries Wilson had full parameters in making a decision to insert sophomore Hayden Rettig in as quarterback throughout the past three games, mainly supported Laviano’s recent play.
“I’m pleased with where Chris is,” Flood said. “I think he’s making good decisions, for the most part.”
As Carroo makes just his third start of the season after playing only nine of the team’s 20 quarters this year, the senior captain leads the Big Ten in touchdown receptions (6) to accompany his team-high 315 yards on 14 catches.
And with the Rutgers run game picking up as defenses begin to load the box, Carroo’s deep-threat ability causes the potential for a nightmarish one-on-one matchup if opposing coordinators don’t install double-team looks.
Regardless of who the defense throws at him in Bloomington, Carroo’s nature is to lead the way.
“I love to compete. I’m a competitor, so by any means I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna play as hard as I can,” he said. “My motivation is to make plays for my team when my team needs me, so me just not being out there those two games just hurt me, so I knew I had to come back and do whatever I can to let my teammates know I’m still their captain and I still wanna win a championship.”
If those title hopes refer to his preseason pledge of winning a Big Ten Championship and eventually punching a ticket to the Rose Bowl, the long shot prospects are dwindling at best.
But if Carroo wants to keep the slightest of those chances alive, it all starts with a pivotal conference matchup at Indiana.
“Saturday, like I said, we’re not around here looking for moral victories,” Carroo said. “But I’m very excited with the way we play and the potential that this team has and we can go out there and prove that we can play with anybody. We just gotta pay attention to the little details and just finish the game.”
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