Blocked field goal leads to tie-breaking touchdown, changes momentum of game in Rutgers’ sixth win of season
Before an early third-quarter field goal attempt Saturday, Duron Harmon pulled a pair of teammates aside, noticing a weakness in Syracuse’s blocking scheme.
A blocked field goal and a 75-yard touchdown return later, the senior safety gave the Rutgers football team the cushion it needed in a 23-15 victory against Syracuse at High Point Solutions Stadium.
“The ball looked as big as ever,” Harmon said. “I just went over there and scooped it. When I looked to my right, I had nothing but red right next to me. I saw the sideline, and I knew I was going to score.”
Harmon’s score — the team’s fourth non-offensive touchdown this season — kick-started 16 unanswered points for the No. 19 Scarlet Knights (6-0, 3-0), which became bowl eligible for the seventh time in eight years.
But after redshirt-freshman kicker Nick Borgese missed an extra point and Syracuse (2-4, 1-1) quarterback Ryan Nassib led a fourth-quarter touchdown drive, the Knights’ momentum quickly dissolved.
Nassib, the Big East’s leader in passing yards, took the field again trailing by eight points with 2:45 left. But an interception by senior cornerback Brandon Jones on the drive’s first play left little to doubt in Piscataway.
It was part of a defensive performance that featured 418 yards allowed, but four takeaways.
“Not only do we not want people to score on us, we don’t want them to get yards on us,” said senior linebacker Khaseem Greene. “We’re not letting anybody get rushing yards, passing yards, none of that. When it happens, it just fuels us to go out there and get the ball back.”
Greene, the Big East’s 2011 Co-Defensive Player of the Year, found himself around the ball often. He totaled 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception against the Orange, which never found a way to minimize Greene’s impact.
He crowded the middle of the field, penetrated Syracuse’s pass protection and was nearly everywhere in between.
“Just certainly an All-American Player-of-the-Year-type performance, which is what he can do for us and has done in the past,” said head coach Kyle Flood of Greene. “It’s certainly nothing new for him to do that.”
The former safety credits his experience at the position for reading quarterbacks’ tendencies. His interception, Greene said, came off of a perfect play call by defensive coordinator Robb Smith, who arrived in Piscataway the same year head coach Doug Marrone took over in Syracuse.
Smith watched in 2009 as Marrone’s defense racked up nine sacks and two takeaways, dashing Rutgers’ brief stint in the top 25. He did the same in 2010, when the Knights managed only 280 yards in a three-point loss.
But in his first season calling plays, Smith took his own cues against Syracuse.
“That’s what I think about: all the reps I’ve done in ball disruption when the guy is getting held up,” Greene said. “When I see some brown, I can go get it. That’s what takes over in my mind.”
The Knights entered the game tied for 16th nationally in takeaways. But of their 13 turnovers forced before Saturday, 10 were interceptions.
The dynamic changed in the third quarter, when Greene sacked Nassib, and senior defensive end Ka’Lial Glaud, who registered a sack of his own, recovered Nassib’s fumble.
Nassib threw for 356 yards — 40 of which came on a deficit-shrinking touchdown pass — but the Orange’s three failed red zone trips proved too costly to overcome.
The Knights, meanwhile, have not turned the ball over on offense since Sept. 8 against Howard.
“They believe that if we take care of the ball, it affects the outcome of the game, and I think it has as we’ve gone through the season so far,” Flood said. “So we have tangible evidence to show them that only makes their belief grow stronger.”
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