Rutgers receives production from special teams as offense, defense sputter
For as much as the Rutgers football team has struggled on offense and defense, one area has been producing as much as possible.
By default, that's been the special teams unit.
A pillar in the Scarlet Knights' brand of football for years now, the role of special teams has had a new meaning in Piscataway in the midst of a three-game losing skid.
The Rutgers offense hasn't found the end zone since sophomore backup quarterback Hayden Rettig threw a touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Andre Patton with 13 seconds left in a 49-7 shellacking to then-No. 1 Ohio State on Oct. 24.
The drought delves deeper with its starting quarterback, Chris Laviano. The sophomore has been blind to the end zone ever since his career-high 386 yards and three touchdowns led the Knights to a 25-point come-from-behind victory at Indiana on Oct. 17.
Given the struggles of the offense finishing off scoring drives with six points, Rutgers has relied on Kyle Federico to put points on the board increasingly.
The senior placekicker split the uprights on three kicks referred to as relative chip shots with his conversions for 32, 29 and 27 yards out in the Knights' 49-16 loss to then-No. 16 Michigan on Nov. 7, but Federico said he doesn't approach any of those as givens.
"I feel good. I always think, no matter the distance of the kick, a field goal's a field goal, a game-winner a game-winner," he said. "You still gotta go out there and make your kicks and really, it's just about going out there and doing my thing, no matter where I'm put out there in what position and make my kicks."
That mentality is what has the Ponte Vedra, Florida, native letting it fly in his final year on the Banks. Through nine games, Federico has shown the ability to convert in the kicking game, going 9 of 12 (75 percent) with a long of 48 yards.
But Federico's role to the special teams unit is only the beginning.
Donning the same No. 1 jersey, but with dyed dreadlocks tips and an ability to slip and slide his way through defenders on kick returns, Janarion Grant's contributions have come in eruptions.
The junior speedster took matters into his own hands in Ann Arbor, taking a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown before nearly striking twice on a 67-yard punt return to set up a Federico field goal.
Capping a day where he notched 263 all-purpose yards, Grant continues to rack his program record in career kick-return yardage (2,235) in a year where the Trilby, Florida, native is second in kick return yards (808) and tied for first in touchdowns (3).
"It feels good to hold that title," Grant said. "I've been working hard for it, each and every day, each and every game, trying to be the best at what I can do and I guess it's improving. So that feels really good. I'm really excited about that."
Named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week for the second time this season and the first time since his school-record 337 all-purpose yards with a pair of touchdowns on a 100-yard kickoff return and a 55-yard punt return in a 37-34 loss to Washington State on Sept. 12, Grant has proven his worth when the ball finds its way into his hands.
"It's exciting for Janarion, and it's exciting for our team," said head coach Kyle Flood. "I think it's really exciting for the other 10 players that are on those units. I think they all share in that award."
On top of Grant's four kick returns for touchdowns, sophomore defensive end Kemoko Turay's 26-yard scoop-and-score in the third quarter on a botched punt from Indiana was the first domino to fall in the late rally.
From all facets of the game, the unit has shown its ability to alter the game in the right situations.
"Definitely on special teams, you see games won and lost ... and I just think it's up to special teams to keep doing our thing," Federico said. "Just, given the situations, to just do what we can. That's all we can really do and all we can really do to help the team win."
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