Rutgers beats Army at its own strength in 31-21 win
WEST POINT, N.Y. — Media and college football fans likely expected Army to outgain the Rutgers football team on the ground, given the Black Knights' top-10 rushing attack featuring the triple-option. So it was hard to imagine a scenario where Army would outdo the Scarlet Knights in the air and still lose a game at home.
But that is exactly how it played out.
Sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano did a notable job of protecting the football — it was the first time he didn't turn the ball over since Oct. 10 — but failed to light up the Black Knights' defense through the air, going 13-of-21 for 105 yards and zero touchdowns.
On the other side, Army true freshman quarterback Chris Carter went 4-of-6 for 140 yards with a touchdown to compliment his 20 carries for 111 yards and a score on the ground.
Head coach Kyle Flood was not surprised that the home team had success, after cautioning all week that Army had demonstrated an ability to lull defenses to sleep with the option before sneaking receivers down the field to hit big passing plays.
The biggest play for the Black Knights came on a 65-yard touchdown pass along the nearside boundary where wide receiver Edgar Poe made a remarkable catch over the visiting Knights' true freshman cornerback, Blessuan Austin. Poe reached over to snatch the ball from Austin’s grasp, then maintained his balance and tightroped the sideline for the score.
“The one where Blessuan Austin contested, it looked like he was right there,” Flood said. “Edgar Poe made a nice play, jumped over him and went down the sideline on us. Even the one with (senior strongside linebacker) Quentin Gause wasn’t quite as contested — it was more of a play-action pass. It’s the dilemma of playing the option. Everybody is running to the dive at the quarterback and the pitch and you’ve got to be on your keys all the time or else they’re going to run by you.”
Rutgers was able to get junior wide receiver Janarion Grant involved early.
On the Knights' fourth offensive play from scrimmage, Grant took a sweep for 29 yards to set up 1st-and-goal for Rutgers at the 7-yard line.
On the very next play, senior running back Paul James ran into the end zone for the first of three touchdowns, tying a career-high and setting the tone for the remainder of the game.
“It feels good,” Grant said of getting involved early. “I’m very happy that that happened just to show what I can do. All-around, it feels good to have a win. I just want to score. I’d like the ball in my hands a little bit more, but once I get it in my hands, I just try to do what I can do.”
With his starting center, junior Derrick Nelson, out due to an upper body injury suffered in the final minute of last weekend's game against Nebraska, Flood shuffled the deck dramatically along the offensive line.
After 35 consecutive starts at right guard, junior right guard Chris Muller slid over to center to make his first start at the position in 2015.
Redshirt freshmen Zach Heeman and Marcus Applefield made their first career starts at left guard and right guard, respectively. Evidently, Flood was pleased with the performance of both of his rookies in a game where Rutgers rushed for 254 yards at an average of 6.5 yards per carry.
“Marcus (Applefield) had the one false start, but I’d probably be disingenuous to think that there wouldn’t be a couple more on the road in a hostile environment in your first start as freshmen,” the fourth-year head coach said. “I’m really excited about what (Applefield and Heeman) did.”
Laviano was equally impressed with the play of the youngsters along the line. The sophomore signal-caller had a clean pocket most of the contest and Army failed to sack Laviano after the Scarlet Knights’ quarterback had been brought down in the backfield 15 times over the course of the four-game losing streak.
The Glen Head, New York, native was not at all surprised with Muller’s seamless transition, given how the position battle at center ran through nearly all of training camp.
“Chris (Muller) has always been the second-string center," Laviano said. "I have been taking snaps with him since training camp, but obviously the role got heavier during the week. We have chemistry with communication and calls at the line and then momentum on the snaps and whatnot.”
Special teams showed up again for Rutgers at West Point, reaffirming the significance of the third phase of football for the program as a staple to its success.
Redshirt freshman nose tackle Kevin Wilkins blocked a 42-yard field goal attempt from placekicker Daniel Grochowski on the game’s opening drive.
Six plays later, James ran into the end zone for a touchdown giving the Scarlet Knights a 7-0 advantage — one they did not relinquish.
Wilkins said he was happy to get his hand up to block the kick, but was more focused on the defense of the triple-option, knowing how difficult it is on a defense to prepare for such a dynamic offensive scheme.
“It's probably the hardest thing we’ve done,” he said. “We prepared for awhile.”
All and all, through the myriad of position changes, injuries and suspension of defensive leader Anthony Cioffi, Flood was encouraged by both the progression of his young lineman and the performance of Rutgers rushing attack. Sophomore Robert Martin added 99 yards on 12 carries to complement James's 116-yard effort.
“I thought they were really composed through the game," Flood said. "If you run for 200 yards and don’t give up any sacks, you’re going to win a lot of games.”
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