Stuck in neutral
Offense stalls despite five second-half trips in Virginia Tech territory, Hokies snap Rutgers’ five-bowl winning streak
ORLANDO — For more than 60 minutes Dec. 28, it appeared the rainy Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium had become watered down. Then the Rutgers football team’s offense made its own case.
For nearly an entire season, the Scarlet Knights trudged through mud. They found none on the soaked Citrus Bowl turf, but a 13-10 overtime loss to Virginia Tech dampened a once-promising run.
“You’d love your offense to score 40 points and be able to get into a fourth quarter where you’re rushing the passer every play, but that’s just not the case sometimes,” said senior defensive tackle Scott Vallone. “The style of offense that we run — wanting to run the football and commit to that — those are kind of the games we plan on playing in.”
The Knights (9-4) resigned themselves to a similar fate in the Russell Athletic Bowl, where the only offense from either team largely came from the other side of the ball.
Rutgers never followed up its fumble recovery in the end zone on Virginia Tech’s second play from scrimmage, and sophomore quarterback Gary Nova’s 16th interception of the season set up the Hokies’ (7-6) only touchdown.
Nova took blame for the error — he said it was a poor pass to sophomore wide receiver Brandon Coleman, but the two have a history of miscommunication on the field — as well as a fourth-quarter fumbled exchange Virginia Tech recovered.
He finished 17-for-40 for 129 yards despite — or perhaps because of — offensive coordinator Dave Brock’s catered play calling. A combination of three-step drops, screen passes and quick timing patterns littered Nova’s evening, but little worked.
Neither did the Knights’ 39 rush attempts, a mentality Vallone said is “the brand we play.”
“Obviously it’s a frustrating night, but you just try to keep fighting through it,” Nova said. “We didn’t get the outcome we wanted.”
Head coach Kyle Flood reiterated his faith in Nova as the starter postgame and again Jan. 7, much like he did Aug. 20, when Nova emerged as Flood’s full-time quarterback. He has hitched his wagon on Nova’s 6-foot-2 frame, for better or worse.
His and Nova’s fates are inextricably linked.
“I don’t believe in just throwing things against the wall to see if they work,” Flood said. “Gary’s our starting quarterback. … When you invest the reps and the preparation in your starting quarterback, you have to believe that as he goes through the game he’s going to get better.”
After blowing a 10-point halftime lead and throwing 13 interceptions in the second half of the season, neither proved particularly true for Nova.
Six interceptions Oct. 27 against Kent State distort that number. Losing sophomore running back Jawan Jamison, who suffered an ankle injury Nov. 10 against Army and then against Virginia Tech certainly hurt, as well.
But more than anything, a lack of offensive continuity ultimately led to Nova’s undoing.
“I think I got a little better every game,” Nova said. “Obviously the turnovers toward the end of the season were not I wanted. I just have to keep getting better.”
The responsibility briefly fell on Brock.
The career assistant — he became head coach at Delaware on Jan. 18 — spent nearly 10 months leaving his imprint on Rutgers’ offense, which lasted five drives in Virginia Tech territory without scoring a touchdown. Brock said before the season he lacked the frame of reference on how Rutgers’ defense remained its legacy.
“Sometimes if you have a decent day,” Brock said Aug. 11 during the team’s media day, “people think it’s a great day because I don’t know how many decent days people have had here.”
Flood said he could not discount the first share of a Big East title in program history in defining this season, his first with a head coach’s responsibility. He sat teary-eyed at his postgame press conference, answering more questions about the fate of his starting quarterback — nearly a year after trying to provide the position with stability.
He likely did not envision doing so three games ago, when Rutgers sat in first place in the Big East, prime realty for a BCS berth.
Flood, the Knights’ former offensive line coach, ultimately found himself following the muddied footprints of seasons past.
“We wanted to go out with 10 wins,” Vallone said, “and instead, we get a three-game losing streak.”