Rutgers sophomore quarterback continues to defy detractors
In college football, the backup quarterback is often the fans’ favorite player.
It was easy to temper enthusiasm over starter Chris Laviano early in the season. Through the first four games, the sophomore quarterback threw six touchdowns, but his five interceptions for the Rutgers football team had fans and media clamoring for backup Hayden Rettig.
Critics claimed Laviano’s league-leading completion percentage through one quarter of the season was a result of a short-range passing scheme and his Big Ten Conference best efficiency rating — a byproduct of high-percentage throws.
Forgotten was the fact that Laviano had only lined up under center for three career starts to that point.
“I think he's making progress,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “He's making progress every week. We've seen that. Sometimes the progress is more visible to the naked eye or to the public than others. But we really have seen progress, and we're pleased with how he's working.”
In his last two times out, the lifelong Long Islander from Glen Head, New York, quelled nearly every critique — at least temporarily.
When then-No. 4 Michigan State visited the Scarlet Knights (3-3, 1-2) in Piscataway Oct. 10, Laviano put together the best performance of his career at the time.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder completed 15-of-24 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns against an aggressive Spartans defense acclaimed for its “no fly zone” secondary.
But at the game’s conclusion, a blunder on 4th-and-20 gave reason to tear chunks from the 20-year-old’s performance in the previous 59 minutes.
Rutgers' quarterback remained unshaken, backing up his most productive showing through four starts with the best game to date in his fifth.
Trailing Indiana, 52-27, with 5:25 left in the third quarter, the comeback didn’t get off to the fastest start for the Knights. Laviano fumbled his first snap from center following Devine Redding’s 66-yard touchdown run. But fortunately for Rutgers, he recovered.
Six plays later, Laviano linked up with senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo for a 43-yard touchdown and the rest was history — literally.
Laviano led the Knights back from a 25-point deficit to win, 55-52, on Kyle Federico’s game-winning field goal to send Rutgers home happy and humble the Hoosiers. He finished the game 28-of-42, going for 386 yards and three touchdowns.
“I think Chris is getting better. I think he’s doing a good job, but I felt that way the entire season,” Flood said. “I felt like he has been using the experiences of each game and you can see the application of that in the next game.”
The sophomore signal-caller set career highs in passing attempts and passing yards against Indiana, while tying his career-best three touchdowns with the only blemish coming on a third quarter interception. For the season, he has thrown 12 scores to six picks.
Now, Laviano must turn his attention to the No. 1 team in the nation — Ohio State.
“Now he's got to go back to work,” Flood said on his weekly teleconference Sunday. “Everything this week — that we do on Saturday — we've got to earn that during the week. There's no carryover in football. It's a new week.”
The Buckeyes (7-0, 3-0) crash the Banks riding a 20-game winning streak, having bludgeoned nearly every opponent in their path. OSU’s defense boasts a bevy of athletes — from arguably the country's top defensive end, Joey Bosa, to the Big Ten leader in total tackles, linebacker Raekwon McMillan (67).
Luckily for Laviano, he has weapons at his disposal.
Leonte Carroo is listed as questionable with a lower body injury on Monday's injury report for the primetime tilt against Ohio State on Saturday. He landed awkwardly on his third touchdown catch of the game in the third quarter against the Hoosiers.
If the Big Ten’s leading receiver in touchdowns (9), yards per catch (22.5) and yards per game (118) is unable to play, Laviano will have to look to the next man up — Carlton Agudosi.
Agudosi earned high praise from the coaching staff for his ability to keep his head in the game even when he’s on the sidelines.
“Carlton (Agudosi) is a good football player,” Flood said. “Our job every week is to try to put the best players out there that we think will give us the best matchups. When you put one guy on, you gotta take one guy off.”
Backing up Carroo, the junior wideout has been feast or famine, catching six balls for 80 yards against Penn State on Sept. 19. In the Homecoming win over Kansas the very next week, he hauled in the first touchdown of his career with three receptions for 28 yards.
But against Michigan State, he didn't play a single snap.
“It’s the job of the coaches to put the players in the best position possible and it’s the job of the players to be ready when they’re called upon. And I’m really happy and proud of Carlton for doing that," Flood said. "When he was called upon in that game, he came out and he was ready.”
When Carroo went down, Agudosi stepped up, hauling in three receptions for 72 yards in a little over a quarter in Bloomington. At 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, Rutgers’ version of Megatron poses matchup problems for the Buckeyes.
While Carroo’s health and Agudosi’s role for Rutgers both remain in question, junior wide receiver Andre Patton has quietly begun to put all the pieces together in his third season in Piscataway.
Patton is the Knights' second-leading receiver, with 274 yards on 19 receptions, after catching 20 total balls for 223 yards a season ago. Laviano and Patton have developed a synergy in 2015, always seeming to be on the same page at the right time.
“I definitely feel like the chemistry is there, but also just the trust between us two,” Patton said. “(Laviano) trusts me and he knows that I’m going to be at this certain spot and I know as soon as I come out of my route, the ball is going to be right on me.”
The 6-foot-4 wideout believes that rapport is built off the field, just as much as on it.
“It’s definitely off the field (also). We have some classes together and off the field, sometimes we hang out on the weekends and stuff like that,” Patton said. “The chemistry also builds there too.”
As the curtain comes up at the Birthplace of College Football Saturday night, a raucous sold-out crowd of 53,000-plus fans at High Point Solutions Stadium will be raring to go.
“It’s probably gonna be one of the best atmospheres any of us has ever played in,” Laviano said.
The Knights' fourth-year head coach feels confident that his sophomore quarterback can make the adjustments from mistakes at Indiana and take the next step against the best team in the country.
But incremental adjustments won't cut it for Laviano against the defending National Champions. If Rutgers' quarterback has any visions of David slaying Goliath dancing in his head, he knows he will have to play virtually mistake free.
“I definitely feel more comfortable every game,” Laviano said. “I’m learning and trying not to make the same mistakes as I did the game before. I think it’s going pretty well, I just need to continue.”
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