Rutgers survives early scare, blows out Howard for Chris Ash's first win as head coach
PISCATAWAY — Chris Ash’s first game at High Point Solutions Stadium as the head coach of the Rutgers football team was seen by analysts and fans alike as the easiest matchup of his first season on the Banks, an opportunity of injecting confidence in a team one week removed from suffering a 48-13 drubbing in Seattle against then-No. 14 Washington.
Howard — an FCS team that went 1-10 in a conference without a win over the Scarlet Knights in 12 attempts — had been blown out by Maryland, a program that entered the Big Ten at the same time as the Knights and was going through similar growing pains of a new coaching staff, a week before and week two was expected to be no different.
Rutgers (1-1) eventually defeated the team it paid 350,000 dollars to host emphatically with a dominant second half display, but the final scoreline of 52-14 masks the closeness of a game that was tied at 14 at the half.
Ash got his first win as a head coach, but it wasn’t a walk in the park.
“Really a tale of two halves,” he said of the game. “Did not start the game we wanted to start it … it’s not the way we construct football games. We recovered, rebounded and hung in there in the first half, got into halftime, made some corrections, adjustments, really just motivated the guys to go out and play the way we needed to be playing.”
Offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer said his team would prepare for Howard (0-2) as if it were the Green Bay Packers and for the opening 30 minutes, Rutgers made it seem like that was the truth.
A pair of touchdowns a little more than five minutes into the game had the 45,245 fans in the stands on edge, slowly killing the optimism that built in the eight months of the offseason.
Then Janarion Grant happened.
The senior wide receiver who does it all for Rutgers returned his second kick-off return attempt of the game 84 yards to the house, breaking three tackles and juking numerous other defenders in the process of scoring the first of his three touchdowns on the day.
“I tried to get it on the first (kick-off return),” Grant said. “It was (a turning point) because we started off slow … I think that picked everybody guy’s head up just to keep going. We still had a lot of game to play, you can’t just give up because you’re down 14 points”
The Knights got their first stop of the game following the touchdown, forcing the Bison into three penalties and nearly got a safety before sophomore cornerback Isaiah Wharton intercepted a deep pass from Howard back-up quarterback Jason Collins on 3rd-and-16.
They held the Bison scoreless from that point on, forcing 11 straight punts.
But while the defense immediately improved following the score, it took Rutgers’ offense another two drives to get a first down.
But once it broke through, the floodgates opened as junior quarterback Chris Laviano led the Knights down the field, gaining 24 yards with his feet and 54 with his arm on an 11-play drive that concluded with a 22-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Andre Patton.
The drive was the only successful one of a first half in which Howard outgained Rutgers 248-151, converted on 7 of 12 third downs, forced two fumbles, held the Knights to 15 total yards in the first quarter and intercepted Laviano on his first throw of the game.
“You can’t do it,” said senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick on starting slow. “I was talking to the guys shortly after the game, that has to be an emphasis (this week in practice). There’s no way we can come out there and have slow quarters, slow halves. There’s not way, especially not in this league that we play in.”
The dominance Rutgers was predicted to have for the entirety of the 60 minutes of action came a half-hour late, but it was enough to reach the bloated margin of victory it was expected to have.
Momentum gathered by Howard in the first quarter seemed to have transferred to the home team as it scored three touchdowns on the first three drives of the second half.
Two rushing touchdowns from Grant — first a 58 yard rush out of the wildcat, the second straight game he got scored out of the formation helped by a key block from Laviano, then a 21 yard run off a hand-off in the backfield — were bookends on either side of a seven yard touchdown catch from senior wide receiver Carlton Agudosi, completing a 35-point run from Rutgers as it led 35-14 at the end of the third quarter.
The Knights continued to pile on in the fourth quarter, opening the final 15 minutes with a 29 yard touchdown pass to redshirt freshman Jawuan Harris’, the first of his career.
A game that caught the attention of the national college football media for how it started blew up so much that Rutgers not only replaced Laviano with sophomore quarterback Giovanni Rescigno, Ash replaced Rescigno with true freshman Tylin Oden after just one drive.
The change came after Rescigno rushed for a 42 yard touchdown, shedding multiple tackles in the process.
In the end, despite the early deficit and struggles, the Knights finished their home opener with the commanding win they were expected to earn.
With the Bison conquered and the first home win in Ash’s tenure earned, Rutgers looks ahead to the Lobos, who come into High Point Solutions Stadium next week with a triple-option offense.
“We have a real game next weekend,” Ash said of New Mexico. “They have good skill players. Coach Bob Davie is an outstanding football coach. ... They do a lot of exotic things on offense that create problems. So this is a real football team and a real test for us next week and we have to have a great week of preparation, because if you don't, that option will kill you.”