With 5:24 left in the 4th quarter of yesterday’s game, New Mexico started with the ball on their own 21 yard line, trailing 34-28. I immediately had flashbacks to recent gut wrenching, last minute touchdowns that the Rutgers defense had surrendered to lose the game. There was Penn State driving 80 yards in just 1 minute and 49 seconds, scoring the game winning touchdown over Rutgers in the 2014 Big Ten season opener with only 1:13 left to play. There was last season when Washington State drove 90 yards in just 1 minute and 18 seconds to score a touchdown with only 13 seconds remaining, giving Rutgers the ultimate stomach punch loss at home. And in the 2015 season finale at home against Maryland, the Terps started on their own 20 yard line with 4:51 to play, trailing 41-39, only to have running back Brandon Ross take it all the way for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage to secure their crazy comeback victory.
Thankfully, yesterday was different. The defensive line, led by senior captains Darius Hamilton and Julian Pinnix-Odrick, took matters into their own hands and made sure there would be no heartbreaking loss this time. On the first play of the drive, Hamilton and Quanzell Lambert were in on tackle of New Mexico’s Richard McQuarley, stopping him for just a 3 yard gain. On the next play, quarterback Austin Apodaca had little time and threw an incomplete pass after pressure from Lambert. On 3rd and 7, JPO made the play of the game on defense, rushing in like a bull on a mission, sacking Apodaca for a 7 yard loss and knocking him out of the game in the process. The Lobos were forced to punt on their own 17 yard line and Janarion Grant received it near midfield, returning it 33 yards and setting Rutgers up for a game clinching field goal.
Yes, Rutgers was expected to win this game and perhaps shouldn’t have let it be as close as it was. However, they were just 6 point favorites and won by 9. The biggest takeaway for me is after trailing 21-0 early and fighting their way back to score 31 unanswered points, the defense was able to hold off New Mexico’s comeback at the end of the game. Rutgers has had a problem winning close games recently and the outcome has been decided with the defense giving up a late touchdown to the opposition. Finally, with the game on the line yesterday, our best players on defense stepped up and ensured that wasn’t happening this time.
There were more encouraging signs than just stopping New Mexico late in the game. The starters on the defensive line had their best collective game of the season. Quanzell Lambert, who came up big on that last drive, registered 7 tackles, including 1 for a loss, and had that late quarterback hurry. Sebastian Joseph had 5 tackles, 0.5 sacks, and 1 quarterback hurry. Their play is encouraging and it’s key they continue to develop this season. However, it was the two defensive captains that led the way with dominating performances and provide the most hope for this season.
Darius Hamilton registered a career high 10 tackles, including 1 for a loss, and was in on stops on that key drive mentioned above, as well as the one before that with Rutgers leading by just 3 points. He looked strong and had plenty left in the tank in the 4th quarter, a great sign that he is rounding back into all-conference form. Julian Pinnix-Odrick was an absolute beast, registering a team best 12 tackles, 1 pass break up, and 1.5 sacks, including that big hit on Apodaca late in the game. JPO now has 3.5 sacks for the season and is proving his worth so far in his last campaign.
The truth is the Rutgers defense has a lot of flaws. The linebackers are struggling and while Greg Jones has had some positive moments, it’s obvious the position group that was once the strength of the defense is far from it right now. We also found out after the game that linebacker Najee Clayton is currently not with the team due to personal reasons, and there is no guarantee he will return. The secondary is missing starter Saquan Hampton due to injury, as well as veteran backup and Michigan graduate transfer Ross Douglas. The secondary has been beaten on a long touchdown pass in all three games this season. Seeing Washington do it multiple times was one thing. To have Howard and New Mexico do it, both running teams with less talented rosters, signals a major red flag with the secondary again this season. Something has to change.
That is why the re-emergence of Hamilton and the improved play of JPO are major developments for the Rutgers defense. They will soon be tested even more so with the Big Ten schedule set to begin. However, if the defensive line, along with Lambert and Joseph, can stop the run and get pressure on the opposing quarterback on a consistent basis, the defense will be improved this season.
You have to be excited about seeing Hamilton find his groove right before conference play begins. It’s obvious his confidence is growing and he is figuring out how to play with his new and improved body. JPO wasn’t much of a factor last season in Big Ten play, as playing out of position due to the loss of Hamilton was a big reason why. He not only has an improved Hamilton by his side, but he himself is bigger and playing the best football of his career.
The bottom line is the Rutgers defense has lost many games for this program the past few years. After the defense was the identity and strength of this program under former coach Greg Schiano, it became a detriment under Kyle Flood. For the Rutgers defense to keep this team in games moving forward and to help secure a victory by stopping the opposition late in the game, they needed a day like yesterday. If Rutgers is going to pull an upset this season in conference play, they need the defense to close like it did against New Mexico. It has to start somewhere and build from there. Yesterday it finally did. With the defensive line’s performance, led by Hamilton and JPO, there is hope that they can be a factor in Big Ten play and help this defense improve from the past three seasons. Their first chance comes next Saturday at home against Iowa.