Janarion Grant shifts momentum, paces Rutgers' offense in win over Howard
PISCATAWAY — With seemingly everything going wrong for the Rutgers football team in the opening minutes of its home opener on Saturday against Howard, the Scarlet Knights were in desperate need of a big play to swing momentum in their favor.
A 15-yard touchdown run from Howard quarterback Kalen Johnson pushed the Bison's lead to 14-0 and effectively sucked the life out of the 45,245 fans in attendance at High Point Solutions Stadium after just five minutes and 34 seconds of football.
But on the ensuing kickoff, Rutgers' most dynamic player began to take matters into his own hands.
Janarion Grant returned the kick 86 yards to the house — breaking multiple tackles and eluding a couple defenders on his way there — to get Rutgers on the board and cut the deficit in half.
The senior's 6th career kickoff return touchdown gave the Knights momentum that they wouldn't relinquish for the remainder of the afternoon, as they reeled off 52 straight points to close out their first win of 2016.
"(Janarion's touchdown return) was huge. We were down and we were struggling and special teams is a big part of what we do," said head football coach Chris Ash. "We obviously talked about negative special teams play of last week, and we made some positive ones today that changed the momentum of the football game and created a little energy in the stadium and on the sideline."
Grant was nowhere near finished on the afternoon either.
On Rutgers' first possession of the second half, Grant lined up in the shotgun as the Knights went with a wildcat formation for the first time in the game. The speedy receiver took the snap and started to his left, but struggled to find a hole to break through as Bison defenders began to converge on him.
Grant then swiftly changed fields and started back to his right where there was only one Howard defender to beat in the first level of defense. Junior quarterback Chris Laviano planted himself directly in that defender's route to Grant and absorbed a massive hit to slow the defender down, springing Grant free for a 58-yard touchdown.
"That was a crazy block," Grant said of Laviano. "I couldn't see all of it, but I know he got smacked. But I thank him for that too as well. Just to put his body in there, just to take one block for me to bend the corner and score."
After Rutgers scored for the second consecutive time on its following drive, Grant would go on to finish off his day with yet another highlight-reel play.
Lined up in the backfield next to Laviano, Grant took a sweeping-handoff to the left side. Upon noticing a hole that opened up late, he nearly fell down as he stopped on a dime. But Grant was able to keep himself up, regain his balance and take it into the end zone from 21 yards out.
Grant scored three times in the same game for the first time in his career on Saturday as he led Rutgers with 106 rushing yards, added 24 yards in the air and 119 yards on kickoff returns.
"I'm enjoying it a lot," Grant said on being the focal point of the Knights' offense. "I hope I get even more (touches) to the point that I can't even breathe and I need to tap out. That's just me. I just need to make that happen, just show the coaches that they can trust me in any type of situation."
Through two games, Grant has 214 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns on 23 total touches on offense, which is already more than half of the times he had his number called last season.
The Knights' coaching staff have challenged Grant by moving him all over the field and putting him in positions and formations that he didn't have much experience with during his time at Rutgers and Grant has lived up to that challenge thus far.
And what makes him even more dangerous to future opposing defenses is that he still has room for improvement in his game.
"The athlete that Janarion is, I think he's got a little inexperience in terms of being a polished route runner. I don't think he's quite there yet. I think he's got still some work to do there to be truly a full wide receiver," said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. "But he's adjusted very well. We had an interesting conversation back in January and I told him 'if you just trust the plan guys like you have the chance to really thrive in what we do.' And so far ... he's done a very, very nice job of doing exactly what we've asked him to do."