Veterans assess bowl eligibility for Rutgers as final stretch approaches
As much as they try their best to regurgitate the company line, reality has begun to sink in for members of the Rutgers football team.
Mired in a three-game losing streak, the Scarlet Knights (3-6, 1-4) enter Saturday’s matchup at High Point Solutions Stadium with Nebraska.
They are faced with an ultimatum: win or go home. And the circumstances look all too familiar.
Two days shy of a year ago, the Knights hosted Indiana needing a win to clinch bowl eligibility. Rutgers ripped the Hoosiers, 45-23, to secure the chance at a bowl berth. From there, they finished the season with a flurry in a dramatic 25-point comeback win over Maryland, allowing the Knights to secure an invitation to the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit, Michigan.
Rutgers ran roughshod over a decent North Carolina team in that game, 41-20, last December, a belated Christmas present for a team that just three weeks prior appeared as if it were walking dead.
Fast-forward to 2015, and although some of the parts have changed, the storyline entering the final quarter of the season is nearly the same. The Knights need to win out in order to become bowl eligible, and they will have to start that streak against a Nebraska team sitting in the same wobbly boat.
“We have three games left, but you focus on one game at a time,” said senior linebacker Quentin Gause. “That's the mindset that you gotta have at this point in the season.”
Gause has done his best to try and keep his team focused on the immediate future, but as the window in his career — and that of the rest of the seniors — begins to creak closed, he can't help but relinquish his stoicism regarding the daunting task Rutgers will face.
“I mean, we're all human. We're going to talk about it,” Gause said. “But our main focus is being 1-0. That's all you can think about.”
Middle linebacker Kaiwan Lewis has already graduated from college.
Lewis left South Carolina with one year of eligibility remaining to return home to the Garden State in the hopes of helping the Knights expand on the promise they flashed in the final four games of 2014. The Pleasantville, New Jersey, native has put together the best season of his career this fall totaling career highs in tackles and interceptions, but he has been asked about these do-or-die games before.
“As I said before, after the Kansas game (Sept. 26), coming off a loss, every game is a must-win game,” Lewis said. “Every time I go out there, I don't go out there (like), ‘It's okay if we lose this one.’ I go out there to help my team win.”
Junior defensive tackle Julian Pinnix-Odrick has been forced to fill some big shoes along the defensive line in 2015. After a lower body injury put senior Darius Hamilton on the sidelines for the remainder of the year, Rutgers turned to Pinnix-Odrick to pick up the torch.
The 6-foot-5, 275-pounder has taken Rutgers’ recent struggles to heart, but he has managed to maintain his view of the present as a chance to right previous wrongs.
“It’s just one of those things where you gotta come in and strap it up one more time and keep going. And then the next week — strap it up one more time and keep going," he said. "As the season wears on, you just have to keep pushing.”
It has been a struggle for JPO and the defense, surrendering 2,728 yards through the air and an average of 155 yards per game on the ground through the first three quarters of the year. In the last four games, the Knights have been rendered non-competitive, giving up an average of 49.5 points per contest, a fact not lost on No. 53.
“You don’t wanna look at it like that, but at the same time, we’re not naive,” Pinnix-Odrick said. “We’re not naive to what’s going on in the bigger picture.”
That picture has not been pretty, but Gause won't let the failings of the first nine games allow his defense to roll over in the face of adversity.
The team's second-leading tackler (76) feels that it is his responsibility to keep Rutgers focused on the task at hand and control only what the team has the ability to control — a positive mindset and the effort the Knights put forth.
“You keep being positive," the senior captain said. "You lead by example and you continue to play your heart out. You play your hardest every game. That's the mentality.”
Pinnix-Odrick eyes a different approach, a different motivation for getting a win on Saturday. He sees it as an opportunity to pay respect to Gause, Lewis and the rest of Rutgers’ seniors. It's a shot to give them the chance to keep playing, after all they have sacrificed to put the program in a position to extend the streak of five consecutive bowl appearances.
“We wanna win for the seniors, we wanna win for guys who are not gonna play again,” the junior said. “That’s what it means to a lot of us, to most of us, because those guys have contributed so much of their time. They contributed their bodies and their effort and their heart. We definitely wanna win for those guys.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @KevinPXavier and @TargumSports on Twitter.