Rutgers scores 31 unanswered points to reverse early deficit, defeat New Mexico
Here we go again.
The four words circled around the minds of the 39,680 people watching the Rutgers football team fall into a deep deficit in the first quarter for the third week in a row, this time against New Mexico at High Point Solutions Stadium.
The Scarlet Knights had the ball on their own 25-yard line after receiving the fourth kick-off of the day following the Lobos' third touchdown.
Rutgers trailed 21-0 after New Mexico’s back-up quarterback Lamar Jordan went 52 yards to the endzone and it only looked to get worse from there. The offense trotting onto the field hadn’t gotten a first down in three drives that lasted a total of two minutes and 44 seconds as junior quarterback Chris Laviano completed just 1 of his first 5 attempts.
But with his sixth throw of the game, Laviano flipped the game on its head, throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman wide receiver Jawuan Harris with 13 ticks remaining in the first period, sparking a run of 31 unanswered points by the Knights.
After conceding 21 points in the first three drives, Rutgers’ defense tightened up — it held the Lobos scoreless until the fourth quarter — and the offense loosened as the Knights came back from yet another early hole to defeat New Mexico 37-28.
“Can't say enough about our players,” said Chris Ash, who now owns a winning record as a head coach for the first time. “For the second week in a row, we come out of the gate and we get down but nobody flinched. Everybody believes in themselves, in each other, in our plan and we just kept going. We made the plays that we needed to.”
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Senior wide receiver Janarion Grant was largely at fault for the Lobos’ first touchdown of the game, muffing a punt after the Knights (2-1) defense made a stop to open the game. Restarting its drive on the 17, it took the Lobos (1-2) one play to reach the endzone, Daryl Chestnut rushing 19 yards to the house to open the scoring.
A drive for each team and 10 minutes of game clock later, New Mexico found itself in the endzone once again off a 36 yard pass from starting quarterback Austin Apodaca to Patrick Reed.
The Lobos were much quicker to return the third time, forcing a Rutgers three-and-out in 40 seconds before Jordan’s rushing touchdown 43 seconds later.
“I’m always concerned about the speed of the game going into a game like this, because you just can’t simulate anything close to it with your scout teams,” said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann on playing against a triple-option team. “It’s not an excuse, it just takes a while to get into the rhythm and the timing of it, the game, the speed that the offense is working at.”
It took most of the first period, but once Rutgers got into its rhythm, it went from begging for halftime to wishing the second quarter would never end.
After the Route 1 approach of the one play, 75-yard touchdown drive to end the first quarter, the first drive of the second quarter was a drawn out 10 play, 82 yard move.
It ended like most touchdown drives have and likely will for Rutgers this season — in Grant’s hands. But instead of running the ball in, the Trilby, Florida, native was the distributor, throwing his second career touchdown pass 21 yards to classmate Andre Patton in the back of the endzone.
Wide receivers coach Jafar Williams had mentioned the possibility of Grant throwing out of the wildcat during the week, but the play began in Laviano’s hands, the quarterback pitching the ball to Grant, who found Patton.
“We got a lot of momentum going into that play. It was the right time,” said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer on the playcall. “It’s about the same place, we got on the right hash, we practiced it from that location for a couple of weeks. So being in the right place, right time, it just felt right, honestly.”
Rutgers completed the streak of three consecutive scoring drives with another big play burst, this time coming from junior running back Robert Martin. The most vocal supporter of the spread offense in the first spring under Ash, Martin rushed for 80 of his career-high 169 yards for the touchdown that tied the game at 21.
“When I saw the open field, I just said ‘Run. Run and don’t get caught,’” Martin said. “It definitely felt good, man, getting into the endzone, getting my feet wet, just knowing I could do stuff like that if I stay focused and execute and listen to what my coaches tell me.”
The comeback was completed when Grant came full circle to redeem himself from his earlier mistake, returning the Lobos’ fifth punt 69 yards for a touchdown to give Rutgers its first lead at 28-21 with just over a minute remaining in the first half.
“It says a lot about him and his character," Ash said of Grant's ability to bounce back from the play. "It was not a great play with the fumbled punt at the beginning, but he definitely made up for it and he did it when we needed it most."
The final pair of quarters were more quiet than the first two, the Knights splitting its six drives down the middle in punts and field goals. Junior placekicker David Bonagura hit all three of his attempts to bring his season clip to 6-for-7, enough to place the game out of reach for New Mexico.
The visitors threatened to make it a game near the beginning of the fourth quarter, completing a 10 play, 69 yard drive with a 22-yard rush from R. McQuarley, but were unable to build on it, finishing the game with two three-and-outs and a missed field goal from 32 yards.
For the second week in a row, Rutgers reversed an alarming early deficit with an impressive scoring run, but that doesn’t mean it’s hoping to make it a habit.
No. 13 Iowa is coming to town next weekend, and though it was upset by five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State at home Saturday, it remains an elite program with more talent at its disposal than Howard or New Mexico.
With a trip to Columbus to face No. 4 Ohio State and a visit from No. 5 Michigan coming after the meeting with the Hawkeyes, the Knights will be playing with fire if they get into another early hole.
“We have got to get better. There's no doubt about it,” Ash said. “We have to get better. We all have to get better — players, coaches, we have to get better in everything that we do, either through preparation or on game day. But I really like this football team right now and how they stick together and how they fight through adversity.”