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Giovanni Rescigno delivers best Rutgers' quarterback play of season in debut as starter

<p>Sophomore quarterback Gio Rescigno runs&nbsp;away from Golden Gopher defenders&nbsp;during Rutgers' 34-32 loss to Minnesota on Saturday.</p>

Sophomore quarterback Gio Rescigno runs away from Golden Gopher defenders during Rutgers' 34-32 loss to Minnesota on Saturday.

MINNEAPOLIS— Two weeks ago, Giovanni Rescigno was quarterbacking Rutgers scout team offense.

Saturday, the sophomore nearly quarterbacked the Scarlet Knights (2-6, 0-5) to their first Big Ten win of the season, leading the Knights' offense to what head coach Chris Ash described as their best performance of the season in a late 34-32 loss to Minnesota (5-2, 2-2).

After scoring a combined 14 points through their first four Big Ten games, Rutgers hung 25 points — the other seven coming via a pick-six from true freshman Damon Hayes — across 372 yards of total offense, 22 first downs and a 10-for-19 conversion rate on third downs. 

Making his first career start for the Knights, Rescigno finished 22 of 38 for 220 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. His 22 completions were sprinkled across eight different targets and four different players had at least three catches, both of which were season-high marks. Rescigno also gained 63 yards on the ground across 11 rushes.

“A lot of heart. A lot of spirit. Made a lot of plays. It wasn’t perfect. But I thought overall Gio played his heart out," Ash said. "For his first start, and not getting a lot of reps in practice even throughout the course of the year, to be able to go out and lead the offense to what I would consider our best performance of the year, our best balance of the year, obviously score a lot of points, most points in a Big Ten game so far, I’m really happy for that kid. I’m really excited about what he can do as we move forward."

While junior Chris Laviano was the only other quarterback to make a start for Rutgers this season before Saturday, he was one of four players to get legitimate reps at the position. Laviano had been replaced in some capacity in each of Rutgers' first four conference games, most recently for the entire second half of the Knights' 24-7 loss to Illinois last week

Rescigno, who had been in the mix for the backup position since the start of the season, replaced Laviano against the Fighting Illini and ignited an otherwise stagnant Rutgers offense, which prompted Ash to name Rescigno the full-time starter leading up to the Knights' matchup with the Golden Gophers. 

Making the first start of his career and playing in his first full game since his senior year of high school in 2013, Rescigno carried the momentum he began to build up last week in TCF Bank Stadium.

"It was really cool just playing a full game cause I haven’t done it in so long," Rescigno said. "It’s obviously a lot different than practice. But you get your mojo back after a couple series, but I credit that to how the guys handled the transition from me being quarterback. I owe a lot to them especially on the offensive side of the ball. They did a great job of keeping me up, keeping me motivated and I appreciate it a lot."

Rescigno flashed his dual-threat abilities early and often, dashing for gains of 18, 15, 11 and 10 off read-options and quarterback draws in the first half alone. His strengths in the running game were a known commodity entering Saturday, but the success he had through the air, especially from inside the pocket, was somewhat unexpected. 

On all three of Rescigno's touchdown passes, he stood strong in the pocket and demonstrated his accuracy to all three passing levels.

Early in the second quarter, Rutgers was facing a third-and-short from inside the Minnesota five when Rescigno delivered a pass to senior running back Justin Goodwin in the flat for a touchdown, despite getting drilled head on by a free rusher shortly after making the pass.

In the first half, Rescigno pulled his hamstring, which he said limited his mobility as the game wore on, but his effectiveness didn't waver as he was forced to rely on his arm increasingly more.

On the Knights' first drive of the second half, Rescigno connected with senior wide out Andre Patton for a 37-yard touchdown on a perfectly thrown deep ball, cutting Rutgers' deficit to 24-17.

"I think me and Gio just have that connection where every play I go out and it's a pass play, I just know it's coming to me," Patton said. "So with that type of mentality and knowing Gio can put the ball there, we just made a big play and put points on the board."

Early in the fourth quarter, Rescigno showcased his accuracy on an intermediate route as he delivered a strike across the middle to redshirt freshman receiver Jawuan Harris, who ran it for an 18-yard touchdown pass to bring the Knights within two.

In addition to his accurate passing from inside the pocket, the Warren, Michigan, native also used his mobility to navigate out of enclosing pockets, expanding passing plays to give his receivers more time to get open downfield. 

"(Gio's mobility) just gives us receivers and running backs time to get open," Patton said. "He definitely keeps the plays open."

While Rescigno delivered the best performance Rutgers has gotten from the quarterback position this season, by no means was he perfect on the day. 

Rescigno turned the ball over three times — a fumble at the Knights' own 25-yard line that the Golden Gophers would later convert into a touchdown, a brutal red zone interception in the end zone in the waning seconds of the first half and a second interception made at Rutgers' 32.

He also took on big hits at the end of some of his runs while trying to fight for extra yards instead of protecting himself and simply going to the ground. 

"(Gio protecting himself better is) something we gotta rep and practice," said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. "He took a shot from the safety (on a run down to the goal-line area in the second quarter) and I said ‘Gio, you got all you got’. There’s a phrase ‘know when the journey is over' ... He’s like ‘coach it was one-on-one with the safety I thought I could make him miss.’ I said I appreciate your competitive nature and the fact that you think you’re gonna go win on that rep, but big picture here.”

In Minnesota's first three Big Ten games, the Gophers' defense had surrendered an average of 17.6 points and 361 yards of total offense. The Knights eclipsed both of those marks by way of a balanced attack, gaining 222 yards through the air and 150 on the ground.

For the past four weeks, Rutgers has been searching for ways to get its offense out of the mud and to consistently execute.

On Saturday, the Knights finally found an answer in Rescigno.

"Like I’ve said so many times, just whenever coach wants me to go in the game and play I’m ready to go," Rescigno said. "So when coach named me the starter I prepared and it’s something I’ve wanted since I came to Rutgers. I wanted to prepare as if it was gonna be my last chance to play. That’s how I look at it. So it was a great opportunity, we’re gonna learn from it, we’re gonna move on and we’re gonna get better."

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

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