Rutgers defeats Liberty 44-34 for second win of season

After suffering six consecutive losses since Aug. 30, the Rutgers football team seemed to be going in the same direction as last season, which resulted in a 1-11 overall record.

But, this time around, the script flipped for the Scarlet Knights (2-6, 0-5), who ultimately seemed doomed to finish this season with one win. A second-half effort where Rutgers scored 23 points, outpacing Liberty by 10 points in that half, en route to a 44-34 victory over the Flames (5-3, 0-0). 

The win marks a confidence booster for interim head coach Nunzio Campanile and his players, who were on the losing end of a six-game skid prior to Saturday. Campanile, who has taken over since Chris Ash was fired on Sept. 28, earned his first win at his new post. 

His quarterback, both at Bergen Catholic and now with the Knights, redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Langan, had his best performance of his collegiate and Rutgers career in the win. He combined for 310 all-purpose yards and two rushing touchdowns, while only losing 5 yards on the ground.

Langan also displayed newfound confidence in the game, maneuvering with ease past throngs of Liberty defensive lineman, a testament to the Knights' offensive line. Redshirt freshman left tackle Raiqwon O'Neal, who started his position since Aug. 30 against UMass, made his first appearance since against Michigan. 

Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Reggie Sutton also helped Langan explode through gaps created by the offensive line. Sutton was utilized as an extra blocker in the first half, helping Langan to consistent first downs on Rutgers' scoring drives. 

Langan, a run-oriented quarterback, was at his most mobile in the pocket all season, on Saturday. Langan had enough protection to get off deep throws, showing off an arm when he found true freshman wide receiver Isaiah Washington on a 51 yarder straight to the end zone.

The Flames had difficulty stopping Langan's offense, which was operating at tip-top shape. Junior punter Adam Korsak, a three-time Ray Guy Award winner, was only on the field after the Knights' first three drives resulted in touchdowns. His lone punt pinned Liberty inside the 20-yard line. 

"Yes we did plan for him to run a lot," said Jessie Lemonier about Langan's film as a run-first quarterback. "But we didn't expect him to be bigger and hard to tackle."

Campanile also experimented with some crafty offensive play calls. While sticking to his run-pass-options (RPOs), as he has since the former running backs-turned-tight end coach took over at his post, Campanile incorporated junior wide receiver Bo Melton as a running back in several plays as a slotback.

Sophomore running back Isaih Pacheco scored his first two touchdowns since recording a multi-touchdown performance against the Minutemen to open the season. Pacheco was held without score the last six weeks. But on Saturday, he ranked up more than 100 yards for the second time this season with 107.

Rutgers' backfield only lost 7 yards combined. True freshman running back Aaron Young, who has shone as junior running back Raheem Blackshear's understudy amid potential redshirt rumors, only had 22 rushing yards but saw more time split wide, keeping Blackshear's elusive pass-catching role constant.

Sophomore defensive lineman Mike Tverdov registered his first sack of this season, hitting Stephen Calvert behind the line of scrimmage for a 10-yard loss in the second quarter, along with junior linebacker Tyreek Maddox-Williams. 

Junior kicker Justin Davidovicz made all three of his field goal attempts, snapping a cold spell that occurred following Sept. 21. against Maryland at the beginning of the month, one of his field goals was blocked. But, on Saturday, he split the uprights on each attempt, with his longest being a 34-yarder.

This time around, on the defensive side, it was sophomore linebacker Drew Singleton pacing the team with six tackles. It marked the first time the Michigan transfer had led the team in tackles. A backup on the depth chart, Singleton has been inserted more into the lineup.

But, the most important takeaway from Campanile's post-game press conference was that improvements are coming, especially when the lineup is filled with underclassman. The starting quarterback is a redshirt freshman. The running back core is made up of underclassmen. 

Washington, a true freshman, leads the Knights' wideout core.

"It's great. I told the kids on offense last night, we've pretty much been in training camp the last four weeks, learning how to do some of the things we do and it's going to get better every week," Campanile said. "I think the things that we have been working on started to happen this week and you know, we weren't overwhelmed physically."

Rutgers will return to the field this upcoming Saturday against Illinois, who last defeated Purdue on the road.

The Knights are ready to return to the Big Ten play for the remainder of the season and face a difficult task on the road. After its voyage to Champaign, Illinois, Rutgers will enter a bye before hosting No. 3 Ohio State and Michigan State.

The stretch for the Knights is a long one. But, for Campanile and his players, this road is about maturing as a team and taking each game as a learning experience, especially when a full-time head coach has not been announced yet.

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