July 21, 2019 | 83° F

Big plays, missed opportunities haunt Rutgers' defense, special teams in loss to Indiana

Photo by Jeffrey Gomez |

Sophomore cornerback Isaiah Wharton attempts to stop an Indiana receiver from corralling a pass from Hoosier quarterback Richard Lagow, something he struggled to do all afternoon in Rutgers' 33-27 loss to the visitors. Wharton had perhaps the worst game of his career on the Banks as Indiana shred the Knights' secondary to the tune of 420 passing yards.

PISCATAWAY—The Rutgers football team’s defense and special teams each had their respective moments against Indiana.

The Scarlet Knights’ defense forced four turnovers — highlighted by a 75-yard scoop-and-score by junior defensive end Darnell Davis — and two additional turnovers on downs, holding a plus-three advantage over the Hoosiers in the turnover battle.

On special teams, the Knights forced a turnover on a botched kickoff return and blocked two field goal attempts — one from 54 yards and another from 20.

But it was the big plays Rutgers allowed and critical plays it failed to capitalize on that stood out the most and came back to haunt the Knights (2-7, 0-6) in their 33-27 loss to Indiana in front of 37,345 at High Point Solutions Stadium Saturday.

Rutgers was gashed for a season-high 420 yards through the air and allowed 567 yards of total offense. On special teams, junior David Bonagura missed a 33-yard field goal and sophomore Michael Cintron had one of his punts blocked.

“Winning is really, really hard, and we've got to pay attention to the details and be able to go out and coach better and help our players execute better,” said head coach Chris Ash. “We've got to be better in special situations and we've got to be better on special teams. Those things right now are hurting us. (They) hurt us in this football game.”

The Knights came into the game with the Big Ten’s worst rushing defense across their first five conference games, surrendering 311 yards per game and 6.4 yards per carry.

While Indiana was middle of the pack in rushing among Big Ten teams, the Hoosiers were coming off a 414-yard, six touchdown rushing performance in their 42-36 win over Maryland the previous week.

Rutgers made it a point of emphasis to limit Indiana’s rush and the Knights succeeded in their efforts overall. The Hoosiers averaged just 3.3 yards per carry and totaled 147 rushing yards on the afternoon, the lowest output by a conference opponent allowed by Rutgers this season. 

But of those 147 yards, more than half of them came off two big touchdown runs. In the first quarter, backup quarterback Zander Diamont dashed 59 yards for a score to put Indiana ahead 7-0. Then late in the third quarter, Devine Redding scored from 34 yards out to put Indiana back on top, 26-24.

Other than those two plays, the Hoosiers rushed for 54 yards across 42 carries. 

“It was a major emphasis to stop the run," Ash said. "It was one of our better rushing defensive days. After they came off of rushing for 414 yards that was obviously a major emphasis. It's been a weakness of ours, and we got a lot better in that area."

As stout as the Knights' run defense was, they were just as susceptible in the passing game.

Save for his two first-half interceptions, Richard Lagow picked apart Rutgers’ secondary with ease, going 28-for-40 through the air for 394 yards. 

And he didn't simply dink-and-dunk his way to the second-highest passing output of his career either. Lagow did all of his damage passing downfield, challenging the Knights' cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage. 

Lagow had completions of 18, 19, 22, 26, 36, 40, 41 and 42 yards. Rutgers was also called for pass interference on two other deep balls that fell incomplete. 

The 40-yard completion was a touchdown to Camion Patrick, which cut the Hoosiers' deficit to 24-20 and began to swing the momentum in their favor. 

“We played a good quarterback. He’s putting the ball where only the receiver can go up and get it,” said sophomore safety Kiy Hester. “At the end of the day, we just gotta make plays. We just gotta play through the hands and make plays.”

The Knights came into the game with the Big Ten’s top passing defense across their five conference games. But Lagow and Indiana proved that high ranking was more a result of team’s opting to run the ball more —  69 percent of the time in Rutgers’ five previous Big Ten games to be precise — than it was the Knights’ strong play in coverage.

“In the pass game, you see that they threw for a lot of yards and they beat us in a lot of one-on-ones, and we are right there and that's what we do," Ash said. "We play an aggressive, tight coverage, and you know, it's about being able to win your one-on-one battles and we were not able to do that consistently today.”

For all the turnovers and big plays Rutgers created on defense and special teams, it was the two plays that the Knights' failed to execute that contributed to their sixth-straight loss. 

David Bonagura's missed 33-yard field goal in the second quarter loomed large in the latter stages of the game when Rutgers trailed by nine, rather than by one score, with the ball in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.    

Before the Knights ventured on their final drive, Rutgers had a golden opportunity to prevent the Hoosiers from making it a two-score game. 

With Indiana leading by two midway through the fourth quarter and possessing the ball inside the red zone, Tyler Natee rushed down to the 14 before Davis knocked the ball out of his hands.

Instead of falling on the ball, sophomore cornerback Blessaun Austin tried to scoop the ball off the ground, but failed to corral it as the Hoosiers' Ricky Jones hit the floor and fell on the ball. 

On the next play, Lagow hit Redding on a wheel route for a 10-yard touchdown to extend Indiana's lead to 33-24. 

“It’s very frustrating. We coach these guys when to scoop a ball and when not to and obviously the time not to is when you’re in heavy traffic with a lot of people around," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. "Because if you don’t get it, it winds up on the ground, it becomes a situation where the other team can get it and that’s exactly what happened."

For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @EricMullin_ and @TargumSports on Twitter.

Eric Mullin

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