Rutgers seeks upset of No. 4 MSU behind resurged offense
Believe it or not, the top two quarterbacks in the Big Ten — at least in terms of pass efficiency — will take the field at High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday night when the Rutgers football team duels with No. 4 Michigan State.
While Connor Cook and Chris Laviano might be polar opposites when each of their tendencies and bodies of work are examined or analyzed, the pair of signal-callers sit atop the conference’s leaderboard in quarterback rating at 150.9 and 148.5, respectively.
Both pro-style offenses offer a similar foundation for success in putting points on the board, but the one engineered by the Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) and the man behind the schemes, first-year offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels, has a few wrinkles that make it unique.
Interim head coach Norries Wilson ensured that not much changes on a week-to-week basis — not even for a no-fly-zone Spartans secondary that limited Rutgers to 14-of-31 passing for 139 yards and three interceptions during last year’s 45-3 rout in East Lansing.
“We don't try to reinvent the wheel each week and try to come up with a new offense,” Wilson said. “We try to find the best ways to attack them, be it with personnel or with formations or a combination of the two.”
As much as Sparty stifled the Knights through the air last time out, the circumstances have been altered a bit one year later.
Ever since former eight-year defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi bolted for the head-coaching job at Pitt, the unit has gone backwards for MSU on the stat sheet.
Against the pass, the Spartans plummeted to No. 91 in the nation allowing 248.8 yards per game through the air. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 60.7 percent of their passes through the first five games of 2015.
In comparison, last year’s defense under Narduzzi held opposing offenses to 227.3 pass yards per game to go with a 52.7 completion percentage on the way to an 11-2 overall finish.
But that doesn't always entirely tell the story, Wilson points out.
"I see guys that come up and try to strip the ball, guys not scared to stick their nose in the box and tackle," Wilson said. "They're not scared to press and play one-on-one, and you have to be confident as a coordinator to allow your defensive backs to press and play one-on-one. They've got athletic kids and our kids on the edges are going to be challenged and we expect our kids to step up and meet the challenge."
While the pass defense for Michigan State has changed on paper over the span of a year, the same can be said in a different twist for the player Rutgers will start under center this time around.
Then a redshirt-freshman backup quarterback, Laviano entered late in the Nov. 22, 2014, road blowout at Spartan Stadium to go 3-of-5 for 31 pass yards and a pick in mop-up duty.
“I kind of remember a little bit of their defense,” Laviano said. “It’s a little vanilla at the end of the game, but that’s what they play. As long as I can recognize that, I can recognize when they’re not running that base defense and what not.”
Approximately 11 months later, Laviano leads the Knights into his fourth-career start.
And despite the inconsistency that has skewed the Big Ten’s leader in completion percentage (72 percent), the Glen Head, New York, native is admittedly looking forward to the latest set of circumstances surrounding the annual Blackout Game.
“It’s a new week,” Laviano said. “It’s an incredible opportunity. They’re coming in, you know, to our stadium under the lights and it’s a blackout.”
Adding in the possible return of star wide receiver Leonte Carroo and that excitement for the sophomore likely becomes even harder to contain.
Carroo, a senior captain, had a restraining order and simple assault charges under domestic violence dropped in a Piscataway municipal court hearing on Tuesday after a woman accused him of allegedly slamming her to the concrete after the 37-34 loss to Washington State back on Sept. 12.
With the off-field hoopla cleared of the 2014 First Team All-Big Ten selection, the reinstatement of the target Laviano found for three touchdowns on three catches in the third quarter of the Sept. 5 season opener against Norfolk State adds to the Rutgers offense’s aerial arsenal.
With Andre Patton filling in for Carroo at the No. 1 receiver spot, the dependence on the junior wideout has increased tremendously.
Along with the dynamic of junior speedster Janarion Grant in the slot and the emergence of 6-foot-6, 220-pound junior Carlton Agudosi on the opposite side at the “X,” Patton’s ability as an all-around athlete has gone past his reliability originally as a possession receiver.
On the receiving end of 11 catches for 146 yards, the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder has been a constant in an offense that has been able to thrive when it balances tempos between an open running game to complement a precise passing game.
But just as he doesn’t get too caught up in his own numbers, Patton wouldn’t look too deeply into the upside and downside in the statistics surrounding the Spartans’ defensive backfield.
If the Knights can stay within themselves, it doesn’t matter how good or bad the opposing unit has looked.
“What I watched on film, they look pretty good as I’ve said,” Patton said. “I mean, I don’t see (Michigan State’s secondary) being as a problem for us. I feel like our game plan will have us prepared well for the game. So, as long as we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be fine.”
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