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Rutgers v. Purdue: Special Teams Review

It wasn’t just the defense that played a key role in the victory on Saturday.

Purdue v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The stadium was roaring, cheering on a defense that as usual, had kept their team in the game, despite less than stellar offense production. Rutgers was two points away from their second B1G victory of season, and the first back to back winning streak since joining the conference in 2014. My heart was in my throat, a feeling seconded by those around me. Was it really going to come down to a 2-pt conversion? Could the defense keep the Boilermakers out of the end zone one last time? My old Scarlet Knights wouldn’t have, and another close game and strident effort would have been for naught. These, however; were not the same old Knights. With less than a minute to go, the defense would put the pressure on Purdue QB David Blough, who scrambled and threw a pass that Kiy Hester was able to tip with KJ Gray knocking it away.

Chris Ash had prepared his team for this situation, and the Knights were able to showcase what they had learned in practice. Ash spoke about the 2-point play after the game:

No, we had a two-point play, defensively, that we work all the time. We've never been in a two-point situation yet, so we haven't had to call it. But there are certain things that teams do in those situations that we practice all the time. We called them over, we wanted a time-out to see what they were lined up in, we talked about the options that they typically would do in that situation. They did one of them exactly like we thought. We gave them three options that they would possibly do, and they did one of them and we defended it. Was able to get pressure in the quarterback's face, he threw the ball up and they didn't catch it.”

“Just the cumulative reps of practice that we put into those situations that they had pretty good idea of what they were going to do. Once they started the motion, we knew exactly, and our players adjusted, covered the guys down and got pressure in the quarterback's face, and it worked.”

BUT. It wasn’t over yet. Noooo. Why? Now after miraculously stopping the 2-pt conversion attempt, the win was hanging on recovering an onside kick. I didn’t know if I could watch. Apparently, I didn’t have to keep one hand over my eyes. Not only would the special teams unit recover the kick, but Purdue would commit another costly error by kicking the ball less than 10 yards, which would have caused them to have to re-kick it anyway. Rutgers would off course decline the penalty, and a few moments later, QB Gio Rescigno took a knee to seal the second conference win of the season for Rutgers. WE DID IT!

Special Teams play was a huge factor in this game, second only to our stellar defense. We are back to the Schiano era here, and while a conservative offense may not always make for the most exciting game, Chris Ash proved today there are many ways to win a football game. Here is what he had to say about the team after the game:

“Obviously this is a first, being in here, back-to-back victories, so it's a good feeling. Really excited about our players. Again, we didn't play a great game, but we made the plays we needed to on defense and special teams to win the game, and it's okay to win games like that. But it wasn't pretty.”

“Punting the way we did to flip the field position was outstanding. Not only the snaps, the punter, but the coverage, also, was great for most of the day out there, and it was just a big, big part of the victory, and couldn't be happier for Ryan Anderson and that punt team and the way they're playing right now.”

“Really excited about our team. We challenged them several weeks ago after the Ohio State game to bounce back and show tremendous grit and resolve and brotherhood, and they've done that, and it's on to the next one, and we'll celebrate this one for 24 hours, and we'll come back tomorrow and clean up the things that we didn't do very well and keep getting better and move on to the next challenge.”

Props to Special Teams MVP Ryan Anderson for proving once again he is one of the best pick ups this past off-season. True freshman Justin Davidovicz has also consistently pinned our opponents deep in their own territory. The Knights proved this Saturday to be a much improved team on defense and special teams.

I agree, Coach Ash, it is okay to win games that way, and its takes a good coaching staff to play to their teams current strengths. To me, the difference between this game, and the disappointing losses to EMU and Nebraska is that Rutgers has finally figured out how to win. For their key role in helping the team to do just that in this game, special teams play for me grades out at a solid B+ grade. This is based on week over week improvement, their ability to limit big plays, and keeping the Knights in the game with great field position.

Next week will be a tough match up, and despite Michigan having the same record in conference play as our Knights, we would be fooling ourselves to think the depth charts are even close. Improvement and consistency will be the name of the game on all sides of the ball, and for now I will relish in the feeling of another W on the scoreboard.