Knights eye strong opening out of gate after successive slow starts
It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish, the old saying goes. But one thing it doesn’t consider is the start can be so bad, the finish can’t save it.
The Rutgers football team started both of its games this season on the wrong foot, trailing at the end of the first quarter both times by a combined score of 38-7.
What is the cause of these slow starts?
“That’s a good question,” said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. “If I had the answer, I guess we wouldn’t be having this discussion, I suppose. We made a point of it going into last week, which obviously didn’t sink in for one reason or the other. It’ll continue to be a focus but I know this week, if we don’t get off to a good start, it’ll be 21-0 before we can blink, and we obviously can’t afford to dig ourselves in a hole we can’t dig out of.”
From a players perspective, the answer is simple.
“We still played hard in the beginning of both of the games, but it was just, we didn’t bring the energy that we needed to, basically,” said senior strong safety Anthony Cioffi. “It’s stuff we have to carry each week and throughout practices and stuff like that.”
The Scarlet Knights found themselves in a slightly bigger hole in their season opener, losing 24-0 following the first quarter of action in Seattle against then-No. 14 Washington, than in its home opener.
The next week was only slightly better as the Knights entered the second quarter trailing Howard — an FCS program that lost all four of its previous meetings with Rutgers by a combined score of 165-39 — 14-7.
The Knights were able to dig themselves out of that deficit, blowing the Bison out of the water in a 52-14 home-opening win, but the initial drop against the Huskies was too much.
“We had a slow start this last week (against Howard) without a doubt,” said head football coach Chris Ash. “When you look back at the Washington game, I wouldn't call it necessarily a slow start. I think we got hit in the mouth by a pretty good football team who's in the top 10 right now. I think they're two different scenarios.”
Rutgers appears to be trending positively in the way it comes out of the gate in games, but it also came along with a massive drop in the quality of the opposition.
So this week, when the Knights (1-1) host New Mexico (1-1), a team with talent somewhere in-between their first two opponents, it will be a good measuring stick for where it stands in the first season of Ash’s tenure on the Banks.
A win would be big in both metaphor — showing themselves that they could defeat a team a year removed from a bowl game appearance — and in practice, as it would be a big step towards earning a bowl bid after missing out last season with a disappointing 4-8 record.
The Lobos are the last team before Rutgers open Big Ten conference play with one of the most daunting slate of games they could encounter — at home to No. 13 Iowa, away to No. 4 Ohio State and then back home to host No. 5 Michigan in a nationally televised primetime encounter where fans will wear red and black to “Stripe the Birthplace.”
Defeating the Lobos would be a step in the right direction in carrying the momentum Cioffi spoke about into the conference slate, continuing what was gained in the win over Howard.
The key to doing so is execution.
“It all comes down to executing, everybody doing their job and locking in and not waiting on the second drive or the third drive,” said junior running back Robert Martin, who earned his first start of the season against Howard. “We just gotta know we could execute on this first drive, (and) everybody does what they gotta do like we practice at practice. The coaches said we just can’t start slow because we shoot ourselves in the foot.”
The Knights were unable to get into a rhythm in either of the first two games on either side of the ball.
They received the opening kick-off against Washington and had a three straight three-and-outs on offense while the Huskies scored three straight touchdowns.
They kicked-off against Howard and conceded two straight touchdowns, the second coming after junior quarterback Chris Laviano threw an interception in Rutgers' first offensive play of the game.
Gathering steam early on, regardless of which side of the ball, could give it the momentum it had in the second half against the Bison, where it held the opposition to a total of five yards on offense while gathering 361 of its own.
“It definitely helps our defense and it gives the defense confidence if they see us out there doing good, they’re gonna wanna do the same and vice-versa,” Martin said. “When we see our defense out there getting stops and we’re not scoring points, we know that we just can’t leave our defense out there and we’re not helping them as well because that’s when things start going bad.”
No matter how it does it, the Knights need to come out strong in the game, as strong as they do when they rush out of the tunnel moments before kick-off. Anything else, and it could be the start of a long rest of the season for Rutgers.
“What we've got to do is just got to continue to work and focus on the preparation,” Ash said. “There's all kinds of excuses I could make and give you for why a team would start slow. I'm not into that, and I'm not going to do that. We have to start games better, and that's bottom line."