Late turnover, red zone struggles spoil Rutgers' bid at upset of Iowa
PISCATAWAY — The Rutgers football team won nearly every statistical category in its Big Ten opener against Iowa on Saturday.
The Scarlet Knights out gained the Hawkeyes (383 total yards to 355), converted more first downs (21 to 19), were more successful on third downs (6-for-16 to 3-for-11) and committed less penalties (four to seven).
But the one area that the Knights (2-2, 0-1) faced a disadvantage in would be their downfall in an eventual 14-7 loss to Iowa (3-1, 1-0) at High Point Solutions Stadium.
With the score locked at seven and just under nine minutes remaining in the game, Rutgers faced a third-and-16 from its own 24. On the play, junior quarterback Chris Laviano connected with senior wide receiver Andre Patton across the middle on a crossing route. Patton caught the ball in stride near the line of scrimmage and immediately had Hawkeyes' safety Brandon Snyder on his back.
Despite being nowhere near the first-down marker, Patton refused to go down as Snyder stood him up. When Patton was finally taken to the ground by Snyder near the same yard line that the reception was made, the senior wide out didn't have the ball in his grasp anymore.
Snyder had stripped the ball away from Patton on the way to the ground and recovered it at the 21. Patton's lost fumble was the first, and only, turnover of the game committed by either side.
On the following play, Iowa running back Akrum Wadley ran untouched into the end zone from 26 yards out for the game's decisive score.
"I wasn't sure he had complete possession of it when the guy knocked it out, but he's got to hold on to the ball. I'm not going to tell a guy you can't fight for more yards. That's not what you do," said head coach Chris Ash. "They thought he caught the ball. The guy made a nice play, knocked the ball out and he's got to hold on to the ball. It is what it is."
Saturday was the first time this season that the Knights put together a full game on the defensive side of the ball. On their first four drives of the second half, the Hawkeyes had run 16 plays and gained just 68 yards.
On its two most recent drives before scoring the game-winning touchdown, Iowa had gone three-and-out.
With the way its defense was performing, Rutgers was contempt with playing the field position battle with the Hawkeyes, which is why the Knights played it safe and threw well short of the sticks on that third-and-16 play.
But Patton's fumble threw a wrench into that fourth quarter game plan.
"It's gonna be hard to pick up any first downs in third-and-16 (situations)," said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. "We tell our guys all the time, 'what's the best third-and-extra long game plan? It's to not be in that down and distance.' It means you obviously did something wrong on first and second down, which we did. So, at that point in the game we were playing good defense. The whole half (our defense) had stopped them, we felt good about punting, getting the ball back and playing the field position battle again. The fumble was the absolute last outcome that (we) were looking for."
Andre Patton had both the highlight and the lowlight on the offensive side of the ball for Rutgers against Iowa.
With just under 13 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Chris Laviano connected with Patton in the end zone from 15 yards out on a perfect pitch-and-catch to tie the game at 7-7.
Laviano threw a fade to Patton's back shoulder and the receiver made a nice adjustment in his route to make the catch for his third score of the season.
But his fumble on the Knights' following drive overshadowed his touchdown grab as Rutgers opened conference competition with a squandered opportunity at an upset win.
"I have to put that past me because we still had enough time in the game to go down and move the ball down the field and get a win," Patton said on his fumble. "But I can't dwell on a moment like that. I have to move past it."
While the Rutgers football team struggled with its consistency on offense through the first three games, there was one constant when the Scarlet Knights had the ball — if they got in the red zone, they scored.
Entering their showdown with Iowa, the Knights were a perfect 8-for-8 in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on three of those conversions.
On Saturday, Rutgers' perfect conversion rate within the 20-yard line took a major hit.
The Knights scored on just one of their four trips into the red zone, turning the ball over on downs twice and punting once across their three failed trips deep inside Iowa's territory.
It's always tough to move past missed opportunities to put points on the board, but in a one-score loss, it's even tougher.
"Sting is probably an understatement I would say. Closer to vomit," said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer on how it feels to not score on three red zone chances. "When you go one of four in the red zone knowing that if you convert one more of those, you're in a tie ball game — two of those, you win the game — obviously, you're very sick to your stomach."
Rutgers drove straight down the field on the first drive of the game, setting itself up with a third-and-six from Iowa's eight. On the third-down play, Laviano found junior running back Robert Martin in the flat for a 3-yard gain short of the first-down marker, but senior tight end Nick Arcidiacono was flagged for pass interference on the play.
The Hawkeyes accepted the 15-yard penalty, pushing the Knights back to the 23-yard line where they would repeat the down. Already operating on the edge of junior kicker David Bonagura's field goal range, Laviano was sacked for a 13-yard loss. After being set up within Iowa's 10-yard line, Rutgers was now forced to punt from the opposing 36.
"I probably should've threw the ball away," Laviano said of the sack that pushed the Knights out of field goal range.
Janarion Grant's 76-yard catch and run late in the first half gave Rutgers a fresh set of downs 3 yards away from the end zone.
Freshman quarterback Tylin Oden was inserted into the game to give the Knights a dual-threat out of the read option. Oden kept the ball on both first and second down, but gained all but 1 yard combined.
"They were plugging all the internal gaps," Mehringer said. "So we tried getting out on the edge with Tylin there and, bless his heart, he just doesn't have enough ass behind him to punch it in."
Laviano was re-inserted into the game on third down and also pulled it back on the read-option, losing 1 yard on the play.
Rutgers decided to keep the offense on the field for the fourth down and, following a timeout, Laviano kept it again, but this time he had Jawaun Harris running behind him. Laviano got around the edge on the left side, giving the Knights a two-on-one advantage on the outside.
Harris had enough space to walk in if Laviano pitched him the ball, but Laviano decided to eat it and dive for the touchdown himself, which he was stopped short of by the lone Iowa defender.
"The guy was doing a cat and mouse with him. He wasn't sure if the other guy was playing a quarterback or playing a pitch," said head football coach Chris Ash. "At the end of the day, the guy fell in on the quarterback and made the tackle. But the guy was in no-man's land and wasn't sure what he was trying to play it."
Following Akrum Wadley's 26-yard touchdown run that gave Iowa a late 14-7 lead, Rutgers responded with a strong drive downfield.
Starting with the ball at their own 25, the Knights marched down to the Hawkeyes' 25 in just six plays. After three straight rushes from Robert Martin gained a net of 8 yards, Rutgers faced a critical fourth-and-two from Iowa's 17.
Instead of running it again with Martin, who was stuffed for no gain on the previous play, the Knights ran a sweep to Harris, who was swallowed up in the backfield before even getting around the edge being set on the left side.
"They penetrated the edge, we tried to get the edge and we didn't. That's it," Harris said. "Simple as that."
Martin continued his strong play this season with 106 yards across 21 carries against Iowa. But on the six combined third and fourth down short-yardage plays that Rutgers failed to convert in the red zone, he was the ball carrier in just one of those late-down, short-yardage situations.
"I wasn't surprised. I know we got a lot of playmakers on this team. That'd be selfish of me to say something like that," Martin said when asked if he was surprised to not have his number called on the final fourth down try. "I just know that if you're out there playing, if you're in that starting 11, you're capable of making a play and I was just trying to get the job done. Try to help block and just came up short."
Janarion Grant put the Rutgers football team and the 44,061 in attendance at High Point Solutions Stadium on a rollercoaster ride of emotions late in the first half against Iowa.
The senior wide receiver took a bubble screen from junior quarterback Chris Laviano and eluded four Hawkeye defenders on a 76-yard pickup, bringing the ball down to Iowa's three-yard line.
But the jubilation that Grant's thrilling run ignited in the home crowd was quickly silenced when the 5'10'' receiver laid on the ground in noticeable pain at the conclusion of the play.
As Grant was approaching the end zone, he spotted All-American cornerback Desmond King closing in on him. When King converged on Grant, the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award winner took a swing at Grant with his right arm to try and knock him out of bounds. Grant ducked his head and lunged forward to avoid King, who missed on tackling Grant but stepped on his right ankle while running past him.
Grant needed assistance getting to the sidelines and he struggled to put weight on his right foot. And before the end of the first half, he was carted off into the tunnel of High Point Solutions Stadium.
He returned to the sidelines in the second half, but he was wearing street clothes and, most notably, was on crunches.
"No comment until I get a chance to speak with the trainers and doctors to find out," said head football coach Chris Ash on Grant's injury status after the game.
It goes without saying, but losing Janarion Grant for an extended period of time would be a detrimental loss for the Scarlet Knights.
Through three-plus games, Grant had piled up 348 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns across 38 total touches on offense. In addition, Grant has one passing touchdown and has scored on both a punt and kickoff return.
If Grant does indeed miss game action, redshirt freshman Jawaun Harris will slide into Grant's spot in the slot and on returns. As shown in the second half Saturday, the two-sport athlete will also be featured more in the patented bubble screens and jet sweeps that Grant makes his living off of.
But the Knights aren't expecting Harris to pick up right where Grant left off, in terms of both his production and explosive play-making ability.
The onus will fall on the entire offensive side to pick up its play in Grant's absence.
"Obviously you're gonna change it a little bit. Just the dynamic playmaker that kid has been for us," said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer on game planning without Janarion Grant. "Jawaun is a very capable young kid, obviously, but you have to tailor what you do a little bit more. That's gonna fall more I think on the outside receivers, the O-line and the quarterback to pick up the slack so to speak. There's no guy that's gonna break three tackles anymore and take it 76 yards for you."
- Senior defensive end Quanzell Lambert was carted off the field on the final drive of the game.
- Rutgers had burnt all three of its second-half timeouts by the 12:50 mark of the fourth quarter
- Senior running back Justin Goodwin had 11 carries for 74 yards. After starting the season as the No. 1 back, Goodwin had three carries for 13 yards against Howard and zero touches on offense against New Mexico last week.
- When Jawaun Harris slid over to Janarion Grant's spot in the slot, junior wide receiver John Tsimis took over Harris' spot on the outside on most snaps. Tsmis made his first catch of the season, which went for 19 yards.
- David Bonagura took kickoffs for the first time this season, instead of freshman Jared Smolar. On two kickoffs Bonagura had an average of 63.5 yards and recorded one touchback.
- Senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick added to his team-high totals of tackles-for-loss (five) and sacks (four).
- Tylin Oden attempted three rushes and gained 13 yards, including a long of 12. In two game appearances this season Oden has 13 rushes while not attempting a single pass.
- Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann, son of Rutgers defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, recored seven tackles.