Linebackers provide bright spot for Rutgers on defense
On a defense that ranks at the bottom of the Big Ten against the pass and in total defense, it's hard to believe that three defenders are having career years for the Rutgers football team.
Two seniors and a junior have surpassed all expectations this season and they all happen to play in the same position group.
After injuries have plagued the Scarlet Knights' defensive line this fall, players were forced to switch positions or step into new roles. The loss of senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton was a big blow to a defensive unit playing only its second year in the Big Ten, a conference brimming with talent on the offensive side of the ball.
The Knights have demonstrated an inability to generate a pass rush, coupled with a general lack of penetration that has allowed teams to throw at will and run through the first level with the ground game.
Luckily for them, it's at the second level where Rutgers best position group resides — the linebacking corps.
Junior Steve Longa along with seniors Kaiwan Lewis and Quentin Gause have plugged the holes in a defense that has been leaking like a sieve since three potential starters were dismissed from the team Sept. 5 after their arrests.
Lewis, a graduate transfer, points to the experience and dedication to diagnosing opposing offenses as the main factor for the elevated play of the linebackers this season.
“We try to study as hard as we can everyday,” Lewis said. “I feel like coming from South Carolina and then being here, this is the hardest I've ever studied. Sunup to sundown, we watch as much film as we possibly can and pride ourselves on preparing as much as we can.”
The preparation did not appear evident in week one. The opening drive against the Spartans served as a precursor to a forgettable defensive effort from the Knights over the course of their first nine games.
NSU, a Division I-AA opponent, knifed through Rutgers on the opening series, needing only four plays to cover 75 yards before quarterback Greg Hankerson's 16-yard touchdown pass put the Spartans ahead, 7-0.
The home team would go on to win 63-13, but it was the struggles in the first quarter that revealed a noticeable chink in the Knights’ armor.
Gause has done his part for the defense, registering 76 tackles for Rutgers thus far in 2015, after finishing last season with 72 tackles in total.
His 10 tackles for loss lead the Knights and his lone sack sits just behind Rutgers' leading pass-rusher, sophomore Kemoko Turay, who has only managed to tally two, a year after his 7.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss garnered Freshman All-American honors.
“It's a mental game,” Gause said.
The Rochester, New York, native views the progression of the youth on defense as a testament to the theory of trial-by-fire education. Gause remains convinced that the Knights’ young defense is progressing, regardless of whether or not media and fans can see the results on tape or in the team’s record.
“I feel like as a team, we got lots of young guys, so young guys are stepping up to the plate,” he said. “I feel like each week — you may not see it on the film, or the score may not tell you, but on the field, I feel like guys are getting better.”
Lewis sees Rutgers' opponent Saturday as one that sits in a similar position.
Like the Knights, Nebraska enters Saturday’s matchup needing a win to keep the prospects of bowl eligibility alive.
But as Rutgers limps home on a three-game losing streak after a 49-16 drubbing at the hands of No. 16 Michigan, the Cornhuskers spirits have been lifted.
Nebraska arrives on the Banks coming off the biggest win for the program in recent memory, toppling a titan of the Big Ten by handing then-No. 7 Michigan State its first loss of the season, with Tommy Armstrong’s touchdown pass to Brandon Reilly securing victory with under a minute to play in Lincoln last week.
“They're kind of having a similar season,” Lewis said. “They’re going out there just to go as hard as they can so that way they can try to get as many wins as they can to continue for postseason."
No one has questioned the focus, execution or effort of Rutgers’ weakside linebacker this fall, evidenced in the Knights 25-point comeback win against Indiana.
Longa fought through injury to tally 16 tackles and anchor a defense that allowed Rutgers to rattle off 28 unanswered points for the win. But the following week, then-No. 1 Ohio State blew the doors off his team, 49-7, in front of 53,111 fans at High Point Solution Stadium.
The lopsided loss started a downward trend for the Knights, but Longa has maintained a positive attitude.
“I don't think frustrating or frustration is the right word,” Longa said. “It starts with practice. Guys come everyday, just ready to compete. At this point in the season — obviously, the outcome is not the same (as last year). But we’re still working and we never put our head down, no matter what happens.”
Longa sits atop the conference in total tackles (102), solo tackles (65) and tackles per game (11.3).
He understands the Knights have hit bumps on the road to disappointing results in his junior season, but that has not deterred the native of Cameroon. Instead, he has raised his play to new levels. Unfortunately for Rutgers, Longa’s performance has not rubbed off on the rest of the defense.
“We play this game to win. But we’re growing, this is a process,” he said.
For Gause, there is no time to sulk. His message to the team is simple — execute your assignment, he said.
And as far as making a personal impact, the strongside linebacker feels the only way he can affect the Knights outlook is to take a few deep breaths before giving a maximum effort.
“Just going out there and being calm and playing my heart out,” Gause offered as the solution. ”It's my last year and I'm just doing everything I can on the field. I love this game and every time I'm out there, I'm going to play with passion.”
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