MINNEAPOLIS — A heart rate monitor hooked up to the Rutgers football team would have shown a flatline for the last few weeks of its season, the Scarlet Knights having been beat up and put down ever since beginning Big Ten play.
Head coach Chris Ash attempted to inject some life into a team outscored 174-14 in its first four conference games without holding a single lead in any of the losses by making a change at quarterback the Knights’ fanbase has been begging for since last season, when his predecessor Kyle Flood was still in charge.
For the first time in 18 games, junior quarterback Chris Laviano was not the quarterback behind center for Rutgers to start a game and with sophomore Giovanni Rescigno in his place, Rutgers’ offense appeared to have a pulse in Minneapolis.
It showed when the Knights scored on their first drive of the game with a 29-yard field goal from junior kicker David Bonagura to reduce their deficit to 7-3.
It was evident when Rescigno connected with senior wide receiver Andre Patton for a 37-yard touchdown to reduce Rutgers once 18-point deficit to 21-17 on the first drive of the second half.
It beat the fastest when the Knights scored twice on three drives to take their first lead since a 37-28 win over New Mexico more than a month ago with four minutes to go in the contest.
And while it wasn’t enough to avoid a heartbreaking 34-32 loss to Minnesota, freshman kicker Emmitt Carpeneter nailing the game-winning 28 yard field goal with 7 seconds remaining, Rutgers’ offensive performance provided the Knights with something they haven’t had since their Big Ten opener against Iowa — hope.
“I want to express how proud I am of our players,” Ash said. “They went out and took Minnesota’s best punch at the start of the game, in that first quarter. Minnesota came out, had a good game plan, and started the game off fast. If you don’t have good character kids, you fold in that situation, especially with the losing streak that we’ve been on the last few games. But again, we’ve got great kids. They care. They want to do things right, they want to be successful, and they play so hard for each other. I can’t say enough about this group of individuals.”
Rescigno was in the center of what Ash called Rutgers’ best offensive performance of the season, throwing for three touchdowns and 220 yards on 22-for-38 passing to compliment the 63 yards he gained with the feet that won him the starting job.
The Warren, Michigan, native had rushes of 18, 4 and 10 on the first successful opening drive the Knights have had all season, but a hamstring injury in the first half kept him from repeating that success in the run game in the latter stages of the contest.
“It limited my mobility a little,” he said of his hamstring strain. “It got tight on me and I didn’t wanna risk getting it hurt anymore.”
With Rescigno stuck in the pocket for the duration of the second half, it was senior running back Justin Goodwin who filled in the run game with one of the best performances of his career on the Banks, gaining 97 yards on 19 carries on the ground and scoring the first of Rutgers’ four total touchdowns on the afternoon that kicked off the comeback.
“I think the whole offense today did a great job, we got into a nice rhythm at times,” he said. “The offensive line did a great job, pass protecting and run blocking, and opened up some creases. Gio was able to let the ball fly and the receivers were making some great catches.”
Goodwin’s score was followed by Patton and, after the first of two Carpenter field goals for the Gophers, Damon Hayes. The true freshman cornerback returned his first career interception 55 yards to the house to reduce a once-18 point deficit to a single point and giving Bonagura a chance to tie the contest at 24.
But the first-year starter whiffed the kick, hitting it wide to as Rutgers remained behind.
Bonagura’s ensuing kick-off was then returned 94 yards for a touchdown by Rodney Smith, the Minnesota running back who led the Gophers with 257 all-purpose yards, 2 total touchdowns and one stiff arm to beat a helpless Bonagura on the return.
“Huge momentum swing,” said senior strong safety Anthony Cioffi of the two-play sequence. “We felt we had the momentum (after the pick-six) and took the air out of the stadium and that kickoff brought (Minnesota) life.”
The ensuing drive pushed Rutgers closer to a flatline as Rescigno was picked off for the second time on third down at the Knights’ 32, keep all but a few of the 46,096 in TCF Bank Stadium on their feet.
Minnesota came within 10 yards of pay dirt shortly after, but a defense once ranked as the most efficient in the redzone three weeks into the season came up big for the second time in the final 20 yards and for the second time on a fourth down situation.
True freshman Tyreek Maddox-Williams was the unlikely hero of the moment in an afternoon full of them for Rutgers, stuffing Gophers Mitch Leidner at the line of scrimmage on 4th-and-1 to save the game.
15 plays, 90 yards and 6:31 of game clock later, Rescigno connected with redshirt freshman wide receiver Jawuan Harris on an 18-yard slant for a touchdown, setting up a two-point conversion the Knights failed to convert.
They’d take their first lead in five games two drives later and give it up on the penultimate play of the game, coming as close as possible to a first Big Ten win of the season but leaving Minneapolis with the same result they left Columbus and Seattle with.
Well, except for one thing.
“We’ll get there, we’re knocking on the door, we’ll get there,” Ash said. “We had some turnovers again, some special teams issues with the missed extra point, obviously the kick return for a touchdown, just too many mistakes to win a football game in this league on the road. But players are very resiliant and stick together and play extremely hard. I feel for them. We’re going to get better. We’ll get over that hump. I’m not sure when it’s gonna be, but we’ll get over that hump. The attitude’s extremely high.