Notebook: Rutgers secondary exceeds expectations to lead team to second straight win
On paper, Rutgers did not match up well with Purdue defensively. Entering Saturday's contest, the Boilermakers sat in fifth place in the Big Ten in passing yardage. On the other side of the ball, the Scarlet Knights were without starting cornerback Blessuan Austin, starting safety Saquan Hampton and starting safety Kiy Hester who was still banged up.
It was a unit that gave up over 300 passing yards to Illinois the week before and was still banged up.
But the Rutgers secondary stepped up against Purdue, held the Boilermakers to under 200 passing yards, intercepted two passes and was at the forefront of a sensational defensive effort by the Knights.
"The difference in the game (was) two takeaways on defense," said head coach Chris Ash after the game. "...Holding them to 3 of 15 on 3rd down was huge, and then the 4th down stops that we were able to get in that game was huge."
Sophomore safety K.J. Gray made his second straight start on Saturday and had an interception for the second straight game.
Purdue drew up a double move by the outside wide receiver and quarterback Elijah Sindelar thought his receiver had the man beat. Gray came from over the top and jumped in front of the pass for his third career interception.
"It went just like practice. A perfect play, perfect pass," he said. "I just came up with the play."
Gray's biggest knock as a safety is his coverage, as he played wide receiver in high school and was still developing when he was forced into action when Hampton went down with a shoulder injury.
Despite this, he has displayed a nose for the ball, always finding himself in the thick of things in the secondary and showing he can step up to the plate when his number is called.
“Everyone has had big shoes to fill," Gray said. "Our veterans helped bring up the ones that needed to be brought up and everyone just performed well.”
Sophomore cornerback Damon Hayes played his best game of the season, as he grabbed his first interception of the season with under 10 minutes left on the first play of a Purdue drive to halt any momentum the Boilermakers hoped to gain.
Filling in for Blessuan Austin, who is out for the season with a torn ACL, Hayes has been picked on plenty by opposing quarterbacks and beaten for big completions. His interception came on a downfield pass where he beat the receiver to a 50-50 jump ball, something he had not done in the first six games of the season.
He and junior Isaiah Wharton have improved with each game they have played opposite each other. They played their best against Purdue when they did not allow a touchdown until walk-on Zane Campbell was beaten for a touchdown with 25 seconds left in the contest.
At the most crucial point in the game, the secondary was leaned on one last time to make a stop on the ensuing 2-point conversion that, if completed, would have sent the game into overtime.
The defensive backs gave no openings and Kiy Hester got a hand on the ball to knock it out of the end zone and seal the win for Rutgers.
The victory was the first time the Knights had ever won back to back conference games since they joined the Big Ten in 2014.
“This is just another example of us just believing in the program, believing in the game plan and believing in each other. If you do that, you’ll have success,” said senior defensive tackle Sebastian Joseph.
Gray echoed those comments, saying that their team simply wanted the game more. He said that Rutgers was prepared for any and all trick plays that Purdue tried to throw at them.
The preparation was there for the Knights, and for the second straight game, so was the execution.
"I feel like we just played harder," Gray said. "We wouldn't quit, we wouldn't give up and we had the mentality that we weren't gonna lose."