Rutgers searches for way out of maze against Nebraska
As the Rutgers football team retreats home from the Midwest after its third straight drubbing to a Big Ten opponent, the Scarlet Knights find themselves lost in a corn maze.
With Nebraska (4-6, 2-4) bringing the momentum of their 39-38 upset where it handed then-No. 7 Michigan State its first loss of the season, the Cornhuskers go from on the verge of chaos in Lincoln to being one game closer to reaching the postseason with a bowl game.
The Knights are right where the Huskers were about a week ago.
With its back against the wall, Rutgers (3-6, 1-5) has one last legitimate shot at getting to its ninth bowl game in the past 10 years when it hosts Nebraska at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium.
"We take a lot of pride. Everybody wants to get to a bowl game at the end of the year," said senior running back Paul James. "It's a huge goal for all of the teams, so we take a lot of pride in getting there."
Like the rest of the seniors in his class, James has been to a bowl game each year in his time on the Banks. Rutgers hasn't missed the postseason since 2010 when it finished the season 4-8.
"You feel (the pressure to get to a bowl game) more because you want that extra game," James said. "It's your last year, you wanna get that extra game and go out on a good note."
Given how poor the Knights have looked in their past three times out on the gridiron, it might be difficult to imagine a scenario where they keep their dwindling bowl dreams alive.
Since overcoming a 25-point deficit in a 55-52 comeback win at Indiana on Oct. 17, opponents have outscored Rutgers by an average margin of 48.7-11.
The Knights haven't scored an offensive touchdown since Oct. 24 and sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano hasn't led a touchdown-scoring drive since his career-high performance against the Hoosiers.
Without senior wide receiver Leonte Carroo, whom head coach Kyle Flood upgraded to probable on Thursday, the Knights have looked clueless with the ball. As defenses have loaded the box to stuff the run, a thinning defense has been forced back onto the field without catching its breath.
The end result is a Rutgers team fighting to keep its season alive with a fourth-year head coach trying to cool his hot seat.
After the loss to Michigan, an anonymous "concerned alumnus" created an unauthorized GoFundMe account to raise money on behalf of the University for the buyout of the $1.4 million left on Flood's contract if he is fired before February 2019. It accumulated $8,431 by Tuesday morning.
While Flood's fate remains to be seen, the Knights' head man focused on his trademarked "1-0" mantra and said he doesn't feel that bowl eligibility is tied to his job security.
"I don't think of it. I would tell you — and this is after 22 years of coaching — if you're looking for job security, being a college football coach is probably not the profession you should be looking for," Flood said. "This is a high-performance industry. I think everybody gets into it with open eyes, and I don't feel that way. I feel fully supported by the administration here at Rutgers."
Turbulent times are nothing new to Rutgers this season. Five players were arrested and dismissed before the season opener, and Flood served a three-game suspension after a University investigation revealed his impermissible contact with a professor violated policy.
But as far as the playing field is concerned, Flood and the Knights still have a shot to right the wrongs of the fall and keep the dim light on their season glimmering.
Just last week, Nebraska went through similar tensions when first-year head coach Mike Riley came under fire for a disastrous 3-6 start at a program coming off a 9-4 season under former head coach Bo Pelini.
The Cornhuskers' faithful grew restless in Lincoln and Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst penned a letter to the fan base giving Riley a vote of confidence. What ensued the subsequent Saturday was one step closer to the end of the wild season's maze after dethroning the Spartans and their previously unblemished record.
Rutgers now has an opportunity to do much of the same.
As prideful of a program Nebraska is, the Cornhuskers are still a long way removed from the team that pounded the Knights in a 42-24 blowout at Memorial Stadium last year.
Gone is Ameer Abdullah, now with the Detroit Lions after earning a first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, who torched Rutgers to set the Nebraska program record for all-purpose yards (341) on his way to 225 rush yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
"It's a new year, it's a new game, new scheme," said junior defensive tackle Julian Pinnix-Odrick. "We're watching film and doing what we gotta do just like we do every week. We're not really comparing (Nebraska) to last year's team. Obviously, we were out there and it wasn't the game we enjoyed. So obviously, we get to play (at home) this year and we look to be successful."
Tommy Armstrong provides a dual-threat option at quarterback to keep the Knights' defense honest, but the other side of the ball provides some optimism for Rutgers.
After facing three of the consensus top-10 defenses in Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan, the Knights catch a breather with the Cornhuskers' 124th-ranked pass defense (319.1 yards per game) in the country and the 95th-ranked total defense (431 yards per game).
Rutgers doesn't bode much better with the No. 122 pass defense (303.1 yards per game) and No. 111 total defense (458.3 yards per game) in the nation, but the Knights normally don't get too caught up in the numbers.
"It's gonna be the same things," Pinnix-Odrick said. "It's gonna be the details, it's gonna be the stuff we haven't done successfully and we're gonna try to get better at them. We're gonna work to get better at them."
With that in mind, Rutgers understands what's on the line — one loss all but eliminates a bowl, leaving the final two regular season games against Army and Maryland as a pair of consolation prizes.
But Pinnix-Odrick refuses to look that far ahead.
"We can only focus on what we can control right now with this Saturday," he said. "You can't really focus about the past or the future. But I mean, if we really hone in on right now, it's gonna yield the results that we want. So it's just one of those things you gotta attack full-speed and know what's on the line and go after it."
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