Versatile running backs inject life into Rutgers offense
As soon as Chris Laviano shoved the ball into No. 7’s stomach on the handoff, Robert Martin’s eyes were set on the end zone.
With senior fullback Sam Bergen out of the backfield and junior Chris Muller pulling from his right guard position on the offensive line, the two paved the way as lead blockers on a counter to the left.
On the play, a first-and-goal from the nine-yard line, the hole that initially opened up might as well have looked like the red sea in the sophomore running back’s eyes.
But before he could get completely through the open space and past the second level of the defense, Demetrius Cooper spun around in an attempt to escape Muller’s block.
As he fell to the ground with Muller tumbling down with him, the Michigan State defensive end’s body clipped Martin’s feet just enough to preserve the touchdown — and eventually the game.
“I just know my linemen were executing that whole entire drive,” Martin said. “So I was just trusting the play side, and I was just trying to hit it in there and hit the hole fast because I know they’re coming downhill hard on the run.”
The play went from looking as if the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, native would waltz into the end zone untouched on a nine-yard score to a five-yard gain. The Rutgers football team eventually kicked a field goal before ultimately falling to the Spartans, 31-24, last Saturday night at High Point Solutions Stadium.
“I definitely did (think it was going to be a touchdown run),” Martin said. “But then I saw my lineman (Muller) and another defensive end on the ground, so I just tried to squeeze through and I think he hit me — hit my legs — when I tried to squeeze through.”
Despite the loss, the Scarlet Knights (2-3, 0-2) found the latest reassurance to one critical wrinkle in their multi-faceted ground game.
On that drive alone, Martin embodied the old school physicality of the Rutgers rushing attack. As the featured back during a scoring drive that stretched 91 yards on 16 plays and chewed up 8:01 in the fourth quarter, Martin established a complementary asset to Laviano with his five carries for 26 yards.
Muller broke down the developments of the power runs and counters from his perspective in the trenches.
“What you see on plays is, when you pull, you usually have a specific linebacker or two,” Muller said. “So you have to watch his steps so if he blitzes inside, you have to kick-out block him.”
For the night, Martin pitched in 61 yards on a team-high 13 carries. The latest effort pushes the co-starter of a deep tailback unit to 313 yards on the season and into a tie with senior Paul James for a team-best 5.8 yards per carry.
But perhaps the most overlooked nugget came with Laviano’s increased efficiency. The Long Islander was a polished 15-of-24 with 208 yards and three touchdowns through the air over the course of the game.
The Knights’ first turnover-free game of the season started with the Glen Head, New York, native. In his past three starts, Laviano had racked up six turnovers on five interceptions and an unforced fumble.
That line alone caught the eye of head coach Kyle Flood. Watching from the television set at his home as he served the last of his three-game suspension, Flood mentioned the increased efficiency on offense playing a role with his quarterback’s play.
With a road trip to Indiana looming later in the week on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET, Rutgers faces the Big Ten’s top team in terms of turnover margin. Entering their seventh game of the fall, the Hoosiers (4-2, 0-2) hold a plus-nine turnover margin with 12 forced and three lost.
“On offense, one of the better things we did on Saturday last week was not turn the ball over,” Flood said. “… And that’s gonna be important that we do that. This team (Indiana) is No. 1 in our conference, I believe, in forced fumbles and turnover margin.”
Despite Laviano’s inability to connect with senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo on a third-and-goal from the four-yard line when Arjen Colquhoun broke up a back shoulder throw along the left corner of the end zone, the sophomore quarterback fed off of Martin’s production in the power-run game to help engineer the drive on 3-of-4 passing for 42 yards.
Muller’s breakdown of the offensive blueprint ties those clean numbers right back to the basics of the running game.
“That’s great because it kind of makes (the defense) stack their box, so it leaves our wide receivers man-on-man with one guy covering them,” Muller said. “So it really helps open up the pass game, really helps open up the play-action passing because people think we’re gonna run the ball and then they’ll stack the box even more.”
With an Indiana defense ranking near the bottom of the Big Ten against the run at 12th in the conference (163.3 yards per game) and dead last in total defense (488.8 yards per game), the ability to find that balance could lead Rutgers to its biggest day on offense yet.
Among four rotating running backs, the Knights average 197 rush yards through their first five games. James (48.6 yards per game) and sophomore Josh Hicks (79.2 yards per game) mirror Martin’s effect in the fresh-leg cycle.
Add in the latest developing wrinkle with junior Justin Goodwin’s third down duties, catching screens and designed short passes in the flat, and Rutgers brings a strong case for being able to exploit the next defense they will face in Bloomington this weekend.
The Madison, New Jersey, native hasn’t had quite the same impact as his past two seasons with a quiet year running the ball, but his situational impact stems from his eight catches on 68 yards.
Goodwin left his mark in his last time out against Michigan State by moving the chains as another aerial weapon at Laviano’s disposal with three receptions for 26 yards. That included a key grab-and-run for 18 yards on the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.
From the running backs to the impact at quarterback, the latest results provide promise for Flood entering a pivotal swing game.
“When we started talking about (Goodwin) in that (third down) role, you’re looking for is a guy who’s got great awareness,” Flood said. “… I feel like he can also be a threat catching the ball out of the backfield. I think he’s shown all of those things, all of the qualities you’d want in a third down back. I think he’s done that this year.”
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