PISCATAWAY — The first two seasons of the Rutgers football team's tenure as a member of the Big Ten could not be more distinct, with the first exceeding any and all expectations and the second bringing the program crashing down to its roots as a national punchline.
But one constant found amid the confusion was the chaos of its contests with division rival Indiana, a matchup where the teams combined for 175 points, 2,125 yards and 8 turnovers in their only two meetings.
There weren’t as many points scored nor as many yards racked up in their third meeting Saturday afternoon in New Jersey, but the game even more unpredictable than could be expected, the circumstances rising with each bizarre sequence.
But once the dust settled and the clock hit double-zeros, the Scarlet Knights were left scratching their heads, wondering how they let the Hoosiers (5-4, 3-3) escape High Point Solutions Stadium with a 33-27 win despite forcing the visitors to turn the ball over four times, missing three field goal attempts — two of which were blocked — and a point after attempt.
The answer lies in what Rutgers (2-7, 0-6) failed to do with the ball on offense when its defense and special teams pulled through — it converted just once in 16 third down situations, getting held to six consecutive 3-and-outs at one point in the third quarter.
“For us, obviously, the telling story, especially in that third quarter, was being on third down and not being able to flip the field was the story of ours,” said offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer. “It’s an execution standpoint and a communication standpoint. Some of them we’ve talked about from time to time. Obviously it has to improve.”
The six-drive stretch was sandwiched between the only two scores the Knights had in the second half — a field goal with 15 seconds remaining to make it a one-score game and keep any slim hopes of a miraculous comeback alive, and a touchdown to extend the home team’s lead to its largest point of the day at 24-13 to open the third quarter.
The 1-yard touchdown run from sophomore quarterback Giovanni Rescigno capped off a 4-play, 21-yard drive after Rutgers recovered a fumble off the opening kick-off of the second half just outside the redzone.
It was the second consecutive time the Knights took advantage of Indiana’s carelessness with the ball, with junior defensive end Darnell Davis scooping up a fumble from Hoosier back-up quarterback Zander Diamont and rumbling 75 yards for his first career touchdown.
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Diamont’s primary role in the game was running a wildcat-esque formation that was wildly successful in the Hoosiers’ 42-35 win over Maryland a week prior as they collected over 400 yards on the ground.
But aside from a 59-yard touchdown run in its first drive to open the scoring, Diamont and the Hoosiers struggled to produce similar results in the run game against Rutgers, wracking up just 147 yards on 44 carries.
“Indiana’s a great run team,” Davis said. “Any team in the Big Ten, if you could stop the run and force them to throw, anything could go your way and that’s what we did.”
Indiana was more than happy to take advantage, torching the Knights’ secondary to the tune of 420 passing yards and 3 touchdowns through the air led by 394 yards on 28-for-40 passing from Richard Lagow.
Apart from a pair of interceptions thrown on two straight throws to sophomores linebacker Deonte Roberts and free safety Saquan Hampton in the second quarter, the junior quarterback was lights-out for the visitors. He had 10 passes of at least 10 yards, including all of his three touchdown tosses that each played a unique role in Indiana earning its first victory in the series.
Lagow’s first touchdown pass came in as a response to a 68-yard dart from Rescigno to senior wide receiver Andre Patton that tied the game at 7 on the first play of Rutgers’ 2nd drive.
The score would be the third straight from both teams in a game that seemed destined for another shootout in a series filled with them, but Indiana wouldn’t factor again until Lagow’s second a full two quarters later in the form of a 40-yard touchdown pass to Camion Patrick.
It sparked a streak of 20 unanswered points, which ended in his final touchdown pass of the night, a 10-yard dart to Devine Redding for the running back’s second trip to pay dirt of the day that ended up being the game-winner.
“It was hot and cold. There were a lot of good things that happened and some not so good,” said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. “In the passing game, there were a lot of deep balls, deep shots that were 50-50 balls that we didn’t make enough plays on that had a lot to do with the yardage output.”
Barring a very specific set of circumstances outside of their control, the loss puts the Knights’ hopes of reaching a bowl game out of reach. Winless in Big Ten action two-thirds into conference play, Rutgers has little more but pride to play for in its final three games of the season against Michigan State, No. 12 Penn State and Maryland.
“It is what it is,” said senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick, who forced the fumble Davis returned for a touchdown, of not playing in a bowl in his final season. “Honestly, that wasn’t even on my mind. I’ve thought about it, I understand it, but … as long as we’re building a foundation as to what we need to be inside these doors, out there on that field, getting better, I’m not too concerned with that right now. All I can do is play these next three games … I’m looking forward to those.”