Rutgers falls to Iowa in Big Ten opener after lacking execution on offense
PISCATAWAY — AJ Blazek, the offensive line coach of the Rutgers football team, summarized his team’s first Big Ten opponent of the season in one word — toughness.
The former Iowa center agreed with head coach Chris Ash’s assessment that the Hawkeyes were a program the Scarlet Knights could model themselves after, noting the grit they’re known for as a key component to their success.
“You could be the most talented team in the country, and if your kids can’t take a punch and throw one back, you don’t stand a chance, especially in a league like (the Big Ten),” Blazek said after practice Tuesday. “Our kids have be tough.”
When the teams met Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium, toughness was not something the Knights lacked.
Rutgers — a team that’s allowed a combined 59 points in the first quarter of the first three games of the season alone — showed toughness in holding Iowa — a team averaging 39 points a game entering Saturday — scoreless in the first half.
The Knights showed toughness in making a stop when the Hawkeyes went for it on fourth down in the redzone after marching 70 yards downfield midway through the second quarter.
They showed toughness in fighting through the loss of senior wide receiver Janarion Grant after the focal point of Rutgers’ offense left the game with what appeared to be an ankle injury in the second quarter.
But while the Knights were able to take a few punches, they couldn’t manage to throw the same amount back as they fell 14-7 to Iowa (3-1, 1-0) in front of 44,061 at High Point Solutions Stadium, coming up short of defeating a team ranked No. 13 just two weeks ago and handing Ash his first home loss as a head coach.
“Nothing good about a loss,” he said. “We are not looking for moral victories. We felt good about our preparation and our chance to win the game and we just didn't make the plays we needed to beat a good opponent like Iowa.”
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The most glaring of the plays Rutgers (2-2, 0-1) didn’t execute on came directly after a pair of big moments seemed to shift the tide in the home side's favor.
Recovering the ball at their 10 yard line after the stop kept the game scoreless, junior quarterback Chris Laviano connected with Grant on a 76 yard play that finished at Iowa’s 3 yard line.
The Trilby, Florida, native beat a pair of defenders at the beginning of the play but was unable to pass the last hurdle as Hawkeyes’ senior defensive back Desmond King caught up and made the tackle.
The play ended with King incidentally stomping on Grant’s right ankle, the same one that’s been taped up throughout the season and a majority of training camp, forcing him to be carted off the field and ending his participation in the contest. The severity of the injury is unknown — Ash chose not to comment in his post-game press conference as he had yet to speak to an athletic trainer.
With four opportunities to go three yards to score a touchdown, the Knights brought out true freshman quarterback Tylin Oden to play behind center. Having gained 12 yards on one rushing attempt in the previous drive, Oden was held to one yard of gain on two attempts.
“They were playing on the internal gaps, so we tried and get on the edge with Tylin,” said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer on the reasoning behind the play call, before explaining why it didn’t work. “Bless his heart, he just doesn’t have enough ass behind him to punch it in.”
Like the last drive, Laviano was brought out on third down, but he too was stuffed at the line of scrimmage, losing a yard on the play.
After a timeout, Rutgers elected to go for it on fourth down just as Iowa did on the opposite end minutes earlier.
Redshirt freshman receiver Jawuan Harris motioned to Laviano’s left and after many Hawkeyes bit on a fake handoff to junior running back Robert Martin running to the right, the quarterback and his receiver rolled towards the left side of the endzone.
With one defender to beat, Laviano elected to hold the ball rather than pitching it to Harris. He was held to no gain and the Knights left a once promising drive without scoring a point.
In four trips to the redzone, Rutgers converted just once, a statistic Mehringer said makes him “sick to his stomach.”
“Offensively, not the production from a standpoint that we were looking for,” he said. “We did some things out in the open field that I thought were good. But the lack of execution in short yardage and redzone … We as coaches have to do a better job in those situations of getting our guys in the right frame of mind or finding out ways of getting those guys into position to execute and convert in those situations.”
The lone conversion came on a 14-yard touchdown reception from senior wide receiver Andre Patton to tie the game at seven in the first drive of the fourth quarter after Iowa took the lead with 34 seconds remaining in the second.
The Knights’ defense kept the Hawkeyes’ offense quiet for most of the afternoon and had their best drive following the touchdown, twice sacking C.J. Beathard and forcing a seventh punt in nine drives.
Once again owning all the momentum, Rutgers’ offense was unable to take advantage of the defense's performance, losing a fumble deep in their own territory on a strange play in which Patton was stripped of the ball upon catching it.
“I personally don’t think I had the ball all the way through, so I was fighting to get control of the ball,” he said. “It was an unfortunate call. So I just played and can’t really do nothing about it.”
It took Iowa one play to punish the Knights.
Akrum Wadley, a Newark native who didn’t receive an offer from Rutgers when he was a two-star running back out of Weehaquic High School, rushed 26 yards to the house to score what ended up being the game-winning touchdown.
Rutgers had five minutes remaining to tie the game and it moved the ball down to Iowa’s 25, but failed once again to convert, turning the ball over on downs.
The Hawkeyes were able to get two first downs, enough to bleed the clock as the Knights had no remaining timeouts. The upset bid was dead and Rutgers was handed a loss in its first conference game of the season.
“It stinks, because at that point (on the last first down), you knew the game was over. But from what I saw, we went out there and played our asses off,” Patton said. “We went out ... unfortunately, we didn’t come out with the win.”