Rutgers readies trenches for MSU rush attack
In each of the Rutgers football team’s two losses this fall, the Scarlet Knights’ defense has plain and simply been gashed in one of two ways.
Roughly one month ago, Washington State handed Rutgers its first loss of the season. In the Knights’ 37-34 meltdown, Luke Falk picked apart a young and inexperienced Rutgers secondary stepping directly into the ring of fire against the Cougars’ air raid attack.
The sophomore quarterback virtually fired passes until his arm fell off, going 47-for-66 with 478 pass yards and four touchdowns through the air.
One week later, Penn State trampled the Knights for 330 rush yards on 41 attempts. With two running backs leading the way by eclipsing the century mark, the Nittany Lions ran Rutgers out of Beaver Stadium, 28-3.
And now, what is by far the tallest task on the schedule to this point — and perhaps the 2015 season at-large — comes to High Point Solutions Stadium in No. 4 Michigan State.
“They can get after you,” said interim head coach Norries Wilson. “Their quarterback’s good, their offensive line is physical.”
Next to No. 1 Ohio State, the Spartans (5-0, 1-0) present the steep step up in competition for Rutgers. The Knights (2-2, 0-1) didn’t survive the opening month of football without taking their blows and bruises against a schedule that initially looked like it would spell success.
With MSU, that starts with one of the top pro-style quarterbacks to step through the college football landscape in the last five years or so in Connor Cook.
What the senior quarterback does for the Spartans isn’t anything new to Wilson. Noting the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder’s size, pocket presence and underrated running ability, Wilson knows Rutgers needs to account for No. 18 on the opposite side of the ball when the defense takes the field.
But Sparty’s weapons on offense don’t stop there.
Providing the perfect blend of a smash-mouth running game to complement Cook’s efficiency in the aerial attack, LJ Scott and Madre London mirror the impact that sophomore running backs Josh Hicks and Robert Martin supply for the Knights and sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano.
After Michigan State suspended returning leading rusher Delton Williams for the season, Scott and London have since stepped in to provide a seamless transition in a next-man-up mentality.
Wilson, who oversees the running backs unit for Rutgers, has seen enough of the two MSU tailbacks on film to know the Knights will need to do their due diligence in preparing against the run.
“I’ll tell you what, they’ve got two really good tailbacks,” Wilson said. “Both of them got great size, Madre London and LJ Scott. (They are) interchangeable.”
To stiff-arm Purdue’s upset bid in last week’s 24-21 squeeze of a win, the Spartans turned to their two-headed monster at tailback.
In return, Scott ripped off 146 rush yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. His career day landed him on the conference’s honor roll as Big Ten Freshman of the Week.
London, meanwhile, wasn’t far behind. He took an equal load of the work with 17 touches for 97 yards on the ground complement his battery mate.
On the year, the pair of freshmen have combined for 748 rush yards and seven scores on 141 attempts.
Despite holding an up-tempo Kansas rushing attack to 2.1 yards per carry their last time out in a 27-14 homecoming win over the Jayhawks, the Knights brace for a balanced presence that mirrors the game plan Penn State used to steamroll Rutgers.
Sophomore nose tackle Sebastian Joseph, who watched Scott and London charge all over Purdue during last week’s idle Saturday, had his initial impressions confirmed when he broke it down further in the film room.
“Their running backs, as I’ve said, are both very great players,” Joseph said. “They’re downhill runners. They don’t waste no time. They don’t shuffle around. They just hit that hole and try to get as many yards as they can and especially the yards after contact. They’re good at that.”
All 6-foot-4, 295 pounds of Joseph will be needed to plug the trenches for Rutgers on the defensive line. With senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton lost for the season with a lower body injury, more responsibility falls on junior Julian Pinnix-Odrick starting at the three-point technique.
Factor in two limited defensive ends with senior Djwany Mera and sophomore Kemoko Turay both listed as probable with lower body injuries and the pressure mounts even further.
To help anchor the defense, Rutgers can expect to rely on it’s the back end of its front seven in its balanced linebacking corps.
With junior Steve Longa on the weak side, senior Quentin Gause on the strong side and graduate transfer Kaiwan Lewis sandwiched in the middle, the top three tacklers on the team have used tenacious instinct and discipline to combine for 83 tackles.
If Rutgers wants to give itself a shot to stage an upset, it starts with the overall containment of Cook and Company.
To Gause, that’s a challenge the senior captain and his defense openly accept.
“They’re definitely great guys,” Gause said of Scott and London before alluding to the offense as a whole. “… With them, we just have to play really great run-stop defense and do our jobs.”
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