Rutgers aims to solve pass protection problems against Nebraska
The last three games have been the worst in the brief career of Chris Laviano. The sophomore quarterback went a combined 25-of-60 for 245 yards and three interceptions against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan.
The Rutgers football team has failed to protect Laviano, with the Scarlet Knights' signal-caller seemingly running for his life over that span. Against the Wolverines alone, Laviano was sacked four times and hurried on two other occasions.
But to his credit, the first-year starter has refused to point fingers to excuse the failures of his offense. Instead, he's taking ownership of the mistakes he's made in the pocket.
"I think everyone, for the most part, did a good job fighting," Laviano said after the 49-16 defeat at 'The Big House.' "The line — everyone took ownership for what was going on."
Over the course of the three-game losing streak, Laviano has been sacked nine times. But after the defeat at Michigan, he said it was his responsibility to get the ball out sooner.
"We played hard," he said. "I mean, you're gonna get hit, it's football, but throughout the game, I didn't really — I gotta take ownership of getting the ball out of my hands and setting my protections. A lot of that is on me."
The offensive line has collectively called a mea culpa as well.
Veteran linemen Keith Lumpkin and Chris Muller have started 35- and 34 straight games respectively for Rutgers. The pair feels the poor play from the offensive unit is a result of its inability to protect the passer.
“I feel the motivation to get our offense rolling like we used to,” Muller said, taking in the criticism of the quarterback on his own shoulders. “That relies a lot on me and the offensive line. We need to be able to block our fronts.”
This week presents an opportunity for the offense to get back on track.
Nebraska comes to town on Saturday, with both teams vying for bowl eligibility. The Cornhuskers' defense has been soft against the pass this season, ranking 10th in the Big Ten in pass defense, four notches up the pole from the Knights.
Rutgers' right guard hopes to harken back on the days before the skid, when Laviano was the conference’s leader in completion percentage and pass efficiency and the running game was pushing teams backward with a rotation of three different tailbacks handling the ball.
“We need to give Chris time to throw and give the running backs holes,” Muller said. “We need our offense to be in stride like it is usually.”
Head coach Kyle Flood hasn’t overlooked the misgivings on offense. While he maintains that he sees improvements from the unit on film, he concedes that many more still need to be made in order to end the losing streak.
For Flood, the success of the team is dependent on the individual.
“Everything comes down ultimately to winning your one-on-one,” Flood said. “Now you gotta win your one-on-one within the scheme and sometimes that involves bumping off blitzes, bumping off twists, the back fitting in a certain spot, but ultimately it comes down to winning your one-on-ones.”
Lumpkin leaves no doubt that Saturday is a shot for Rutgers to redeem itself. The blackshirts have not been acting like the teams under Bo Pelini or Tom Osbourne to go back to Nebraska’s glory days.
“It’s a chance for the O-Line to improve,” the left tackle said. “We gave up a few sacks last week and a couple the week before. So it’s a good chance for us to go out there and prove it to ourselves, gain that confidence back that we had before. That’s what our focus is.”
The Huskers have given up 3,191 yards through the air this season — an average of 319 yards per game — coupled with the fact that Nebraska hasn’t had a bye week since Nov. 27 of last year.
If Lumpkin can protect Laviano’s blind side and Muller can assist in getting the calls and protection set well enough to spare his quarterback some time, the Knights can put up points. But Lumpkin is confident in one thing for certain — his quarterback will be ready to play.
“Chris (Laviano) is gonna do his job,” Lumpkin said. “He’s gonna do his part. I’m sure he’ll do great this game.”
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