Rutgers defense tries to shake its slow starts against New Mexico
For the second consecutive week, the Rutgers football team got off to a slow start on the defensive side of the ball.
This time around, it wasn't No. 8 Washington's gun-slinger Jake Browning and his stable of speedy wide receivers torching the Scarlet Knights' secondary, but rather Howard's read-option tandem of quarterback Kalen Johnson and running back Anthony Philyaw dashing around the Knights' first level of defense and through its secondary.
On the first drive of the game, the visiting FCS program drove the ball right down Rutgers' throat. Johnson and Philyaw combined for 47 rushing yards on 5 attempts off read-option keepers and stretch runs to set up the Bison on the Knights' 38-yard line.
On a third-down play from that position, Johnson found wide receiver Robert Mercer, who got behind sophomore cornerback Blessuan Austin in the slot, for a touchdown, capping off a 9-play, 89-yard drive.
After junior quarterback Chris Laviano was intercepted on Rutgers' first play on offense, Howard got the ball back on the Knights' 24-yard line and needed just three plays to find the end zone yet again, this time on a 15-yard rushing touchdown from Johnson.
It took Howard just 5:34 to eclipse its point total of 13 from the Bison's season opener against Maryland. Howard wouldn't score for the rest of the half, but still managed to move the ball and sustain considerable drives against Rutgers.
When the teams entered the locker room at High Point Solutions Stadium, the score was even at 14, but the stat sheet was heavily in favor of the Bison. Howard had 11 first downs, 152 net rushing yards — 105 from Philyaw and 75 from Johnson — and possessed the ball for 21:16.
"The issues in the first half defensively, again they ran a lot of outside stretch plays pulling their guard and center. We lost leverage on the outside a couple times," said head football coach Chris Ash. "We did not control the quarterback run game very well in the first half, he was able to pull it down on the read, get outside our end and we didn't have an overhead player the way that we have it structured in our defense."
But the Knights defense that came out of the locker room for the second half didn't mirror the one that entered it. Rutgers held Howard to negative two yards net rushing, seven yards passing, 12:14 minutes of possession and 0 points, as the Knights put 38 more points on the scoreboard en route to a 52-14 win.
Rutgers played like what a Big Ten program should play like against an FCS school in the second half, but it wasn't because of any changes schematically.
The Knights simply just started executing.
"Honestly we didn't change our calls. We called the same stuff in the second half as we did in the first half. We just played better," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. "I thought our tackling was atrocious (in the first half), particularly compared to last week when I thought it was pretty crisp. We did get better in that area as the game went along, but I don't think we came out ready to tackle like we should've and could've. So that had a lot to do with them moving the chains and extending drives that otherwise would've been stopped, I think."
Through two games, Rutgers has now given 38 points and 361 yards of total offense in the first quarter.
While they were successful in digging themselves out of a 14-point hole against the Bison, as the Knights advance through their schedule and the opposition becomes tougher, they're not going to have as easy of a time doing so.
Following this Saturday's noon matchup with New Mexico (1-1) at High Point Solutions Stadium, Rutgers will begin Big Ten competition with three consecutive games against conference powerhouses. The Knights will host No. 13 Iowa, travel to No. 4 Michigan and then return home for No. 3 Ohio State.
"Do I think our football team was prepared and ready to go play in both weeks? Yeah, I do. But we did start slow against Howard. Can't deny that, won't deny that. We did," Ash said. "We can't do that against a really good-quality opponent or we'll put ourselves in a hole that we can't get out of."
Before Rutgers enters that daunting stretch of Big Ten football, it will want any sort of momentum it can muster up on its side against New Mexico. It will be imperative for the Knights to execute early against a Lobos triple-option attack that is capable of putting up points in a hurry, averaging 39.5 points through two games.
New Mexico's triple-option out of the pistol formation is headlined by quarterback Austin Apodaca (11 carries for 99 yards and one touchdown) and running backs Teriyon Gipson (20 rushes for 243 yards and four touchdowns) and Tyrone Owens (26 carries for 124 yards).
While the Lobos don't run the same offense as Howard they have a similar goal — stretch the defense out with an east-to-west running attack. The Knights struggled with that lateral running attack in the first half against the Bison, but are more than aware of what they need to do to make sure those struggles don't reappear on Saturday.
"Staying on your keys is going to be very important. Tackling is going to be very important," said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton. "They're definitely a team that can get out of the gate, fast too. Got some really good backs. (Teriyon Gipson) is really an elite back for them and he runs the ball really well. We've just gotta be sound in our schemes, sound in our gaps and we gotta be sure tacklers this week."