Wisconsin answers questions in emphatic fashion with 48-10 rout of Rutgers
MADISON, Wis. — Entering its matchup against Wisconsin, the Rutgers football team had several question marks to address, beginning with the status of each team's top playmaker.
The Scarlet Knights' senior wide receiver, Leonte Carroo, was listed as questionable with a lower body injury all week leading up to the game, but it wasn't until just before kickoff at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday that it was determined the senior captain would not be healthy enough to play.
For the Badgers, junior running back Corey Clement had missed Wisconsin's previous six games due to a groin injury and he was also listed as questionable as late as Saturday morning.
Leading 3-0 on the Badgers' second offensive series, the tailback answered emphatically, ripping off a 12-yard touchdown run to give Wisconsin an early 10-0 lead in front of 75,575 fans in attendance in Madison.
But he didn't stop there. Clement finished the day with 11 carries for 115 yards and three touchdowns en route to a 48-10 beating of the Knights.
"It felt great to be back out there. I couldn't ask for anything else from this game,“ Clement said. “I think this whole process has allowed myself to slow the game down a lot more and become more patient.”
Overcome with the emotion of his first touchdown run, Clement flung the football toward the student section, earning a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“When I got into the end zone, I forgot how to act,” he said. “It's been a long road I've been on. I've been itching to get back out there and play some football."
Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood explained that he was not surprised by Clement’s performance, having seen the 5-foot-11, 219-pound back run for 131 yards and two touchdowns in the first matchup between the schools nearly a year prior to Saturday’s drubbing of the Knights.
“Corey is one of the better running backs in the country,” Flood said. “He’s an excellent football player. So that didn’t surprise me that he would be effective when he went in there.”
Another pair of questions posed to Rutgers regarded two-way player and former New Jersey High School Player of the Year, Tanner McEvoy.
The fifth-year senior had played three different positions for Wisconsin over the course of the Badgers’ first eight games, lining up most of the time at safety, but used occasionally on offense as a wide receiver and quarterback in the Wildcat formation.
It was unclear where the Knights could expect to see McEvoy on the field and just how much impact he would have in the game, but Rutgers got answers in resounding fashion.
McEvoy put up his best performance of 2015 and perhaps his career, making four tackles with a sack, tackle for loss and an interception on defense. On the other side of the ball, he took two carries for 29 yards and a touchdown, leaving onlookers in awe of his raw athleticism.
"It was fun,” McEvoy said. “It's nice to just have the opportunity, coach believes in me. We've shown that guys can step up all week so it was a great game overall I thought, special teams, offense, defense, we all looked great."
After Wisconsin had extended its lead to 17-3 on a 31-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joel Stave to wide receiver Alex Erickson, Rutgers faced a 3rd-and-5 at its own 35-yard line.
Sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano attempted to lead his receiver up the near sideline right at the first down sticks, but Badgers junior linebacker Vince Biegel deflected the pass off his helmet and McEvoy caught the carom. The Hillsdale, New Jersey, native’s pick came at a pivotal point in the game, allowing the Badgers to flip field position when the outcome was still in question.
After a punt pinned Rutgers inside its own 5-yard line, Wisconsin forced a three-and-out before Clement raced into the end zone for his second touchdown on the ensuing series, this time from 21 yards out.
“Tanner’s a talented football player,” Flood said of McEvoy. “We really saw him in all three spots today. We saw him on defense, we saw him in the Wildcat a little bit and then we saw him at receiver as well. Tanner’s a talented football player, it doesn’t surprise me that they’re trying to use him.”
In the week leading up to the matchup in Madison, Rutgers knew it would have its hands full along the offensive line.
Joe Schobert and Biegel represented two of the best pass-rushers in the country at outside linebacker in Wisconsin's 3-4 scheme, with Schobert standing second in the Big Ten in sacks entering the game and first in the conference in tackles for loss.
But it wasn’t Schobert who stuck out on Saturday. Instead, Biegel bull-rushed his way to two sacks, two tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry. Biegel deflected credit for his performance to the Badger defense as a whole.
"I personally think that it's one of the better units I've been on,” Biegel said. “I think it's a defense where guys have bought into (it). You got guys who are first (string), second string, third (string) guys. Everyone (has) brought in, in that room. For me, especially to be a leader on that unit, guys are brought in and it's fun to be around."
Knights’ senior left tackle Keith Lumpkin was complimentary of Biegel after the game, pointing to a lack of execution from the offensive line as a reason for the junior linebacker’s success in penetrating the offensive backfield.
“(Biegel) is a good player,” Lumpkin said. “He’s somebody who demands a lot of focus and things didn’t go our way today. We just gotta figure out what was wrong and, like I said, fix it.”
There were some bright spots for the Rutgers defense despite the second-straight lopsided loss where the Knights surrendered 48 points or more, after getting run over by No. 1 Ohio State, 49-7, on Oct. 24.
Senior linebacker Quentin Gause equaled his career-high 15 tackles against the Badgers on the heels of a 15-tackle performance versus the Buckeyes a week prior.
But most impressive may have been the play of true freshman cornerback Blessuan Austin.
Austin missed the primetime matchup with Ohio State due to an upper body injury and was listed as questionable on the Rutgers injury report heading into the contest at Camp Randall.
Trailing 34-3, with just more than three minutes to play in the third quarter, Austin intercepted a Stave pass at midfield and raced 50 yards to convert the pick-six, breathing life into the Knights at a time when the game looked all but over.
“Anytime you can have success, that’s the best way to build confidence,” Flood said when asked if the play could help Austin in his progression.
The rookie has been picked on often this season, which is understandable considering he is 1 of 4 freshman cornerbacks starting in the Big Ten.
Another is Isaiah Wharton, Austin’s teammate.
Long and lean at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Austin represents the new prototype for cornerbacks at the professional level and his pick on Saturday could prove vital to his growth as a player, both physically and mentally.
“You can have success in practice,” Flood said. “That’s good, it’ll help to gain confidence. But anytime you can have success in a game, that’s certainly the best way to build confidence.”
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