Explosive plays lift Rutgers' sputtering offense against New Mexico
The Rutgers football team made its initiative to start fast on offense against New Mexico Saturday, but the results of the Scarlet Knights' first few drives against the Lobos' exotic defense were just the polar opposite of that.
The Knights began the game with three consecutive three-and-outs, running nine plays for a total of 20 yards. Rutgers was gaining positive yards on the ground, but junior quarterback Chris Laviano was off the mark with passes on each of the drives' third downs.
For an offense that relies on rhythm and consistent movement of the ball upfield to keep the opposition off-balance, the Knights had neither as they faced a 21-0 deficit with 13 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.
But on first play of the Knights' fourth drive, Rutgers' top playmakers began to get its offense out of the mud with explosive plays.
In the waning seconds of the first quarter, Laviano got good protection from his offensive line and connected with redshirt freshman receiver Jawuan Harris over the top of New Mexico's defense for a 75-yard touchdown.
Harris, who was making the first start of his young career, simply burnt the Lobos' safety over the top on a go-route for his second touchdown of the season.
"We knew we were gonna be able to expose them deep with the coverage they were playing," Harris said. "So we called it knowing it was gonna happen and it happened and we were successful with it."
Following a Lobos' three-and-out, the Knights got the ball back on their own 38 and put together their first extended drive on the afternoon. Junior running back Robert Martin rushed for 38 yards across three carries, and Harris added a 7-yard reception, to set Rutgers up at New Mexico's 21-yard line.
Then Laviano took a snap and started to his right before flicking the ball to senior wide receiver Janarion Grant, who was running a reverse in the opposite direction. Grant carried the ball from the right to left hash before firing a pass towards the end zone.
The left-handed receiver threw it high, but senior wide receiver Andre Patton leaped in the air, pulled the down the ball over a defender and held onto it as he fell to the ground. Rutgers had cut its deficit to 7 on Grant's second career passing touchdown.
"We've been practicing (that play) like every practice we get," Grant said. "I just be practicing everyday. I always throw ducks in practice, though. I don't think (my touchdown pass) was a duck, it might not have been. So it was pretty good just being able to throw a touchdown pass."
On the subsequent drive, the Knights were able to stall the Lobos' attack before they got in field goal range, but Rutgers' defense would only get a short breather before having to return to the field.
Robert Martin went untouched up the middle en route to an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play of the drive.
As fast as New Mexico had jumped out to a 21-0 lead, Rutgers had tied it back up even faster.
"We talked about going into this game that we had to start fast and we didn't do that," said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. "It took a spark at that point, and the touchdown to Jawaun Harris was that and I almost called a run play there at that time, but that one just felt right at that time ... So that kind of provided the spark for getting our offense going in the right direction earlier rather than later."
During the week leading up to the Knights' matchup with the Lobos, head football coach Chris Ash said Grant, Martin and Harris were players Rutgers coaching staff had identified as playmakers that they needed to get the ball on offense.
Coincidentally or not, each of them proved large on offense in Rutgers' 37-28 win over New Mexico — Martin finished with a career-high 169 yards across 21 carries, Harris hauled in three catches for 94 yards and a touchdown and Grant turned 7 touches on offense into 42 yards and tossed for a touchdown.
But although Rutgers exploded offensively in the second quarter, the Knights' only other touchdown of the game came on a 69-yard punt return from Grant right before the half. Those three touchdown drives accounted for 241 of the Knights' 350 net yards.
Finally, Rutgers finished the game with just 14 first downs and was 6-for-17 on third downs.
So while big plays were the answer on Saturday, the Knights realize they can't rely on them moving forward and have to clean up their overall execution in order to extend drives.
"I think you'd like to score anyway you could," Mehringer said. "A couple of the big ones we scored, Rob's run, did not truly expect that one to break the way it did, but credit to the o-line ... Especially towards the end of the game we would have liked to punch it in a few more times and made that a more decisive victory for us and we didn't do that so that's an area we need to improve. Not necessarily just always quick hitters."