By Tom Luicci
SEATTLE (Aug. 29, 2014) – At the bottom of a very important pile, with a scrum of players from both teams scratching and clawing and basically doing what they have to do to wrest the football loose, Anthony Cioffi was not letting go of it, no matter what.
“It gets wild under there,” Rutgers’ sophomore cornerback said. “They do whatever they can do to get the ball.
“I just remembered what the coaches told us to do in that situation – close every orifice you have.”
Cioffi’s fumble recovery at midfield, after Johnathan Aiken jarred the ball loose from Washington State punt returner River Cracraft, was one of three game-changing developments in the final 7:05 that helped Rutgers emerge with a 41-38 victory over the Cougars on Thursday night at CenturyLink Field – a rousing start to the school’s Big Ten era.
Washington State held a 38-34 lead and Rutgers looked to be in trouble when it was forced to punt, appearing to have to give the ball back to quarterback Connor Halliday, who would throw for 532 yards – the most ever against the Scarlet Knights – and five touchdowns in the game.
Aiken helped make sure Halliday couldn’t pad the Cougars’ lead with his hit and forced fumble on Cracraft, the one Cioffi recovered. That started a domino of events in the final 7:05 that added more evidence to the notion that this Rutgers team may surprise a lot of people.
“I think the resiliency of this team really showed itself tonight,” head coach Kyle Flood said. “This has been a team that has been extremely close the entire season, really from the (Pinstripe) bowl on. I was really excited about coaching this team.”
Rutgers turned that turnover into the game-winning three-yard touchdown run by Paul James with 3:24 to play. And then the defense, roughed up most of the game, stood its ground when Halliday & co. took over with 3:18 remaining and a chance at their own game-winning drive.
Not this time.
“All I kept saying on the sideline was `the struggle is going to be worth it,’ ” linebacker Kevin Snyder said.
Fellow linebacker Steve Longa said Washington State’s offensive success to that point was irrelevant to him and his teammates for the Cougars’ final drive. One stop is all that was needed. What happened prior to that didn’t matter.
“A football game is four quarters,” Longa said. “That showed this team is willing to fight until the very end.”
James (173 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries) was the workhorse on the game-winning drive, carrying the ball on six of the eight plays. He would score on a three-yard run to give the Scarlet Knights the lead for good.
But then the defense still had to make that one stop.
“I wasn’t worried watching,” said James. “I believe in our defense. I know what they can do. I believed they were going to do it.”
But it all started with that forced fumble by Aiken, who managed to get redemption for the entire secondary on that play.
“I was on the sideline before we had to punt saying `somebody has got to make a big play. We’ve got to do something,’ ” Aiken said. “On the previous punt the controller stacked me and I missed the tackle. So I was upset after that when I went to the sideline and talked with the coaches about doing something different.
“I just went down there like a mad dog, trying to fire some kind of light for my team. It just so happened that there was the catch, the hit and the fumble.”
The program’s first-ever victory over a Pac-12 school ensured that several solid performances were not wasted. Quarterback Gary Nova was a steady 16-of-27 for 281 yards with two touchdown passes and an interception. Wide receiver Leonte Carroo had six catches for 151 yards and a touchdown – a 78-yarder on Rutgers’ first play from scrimmage.
The offensive line was solid, even with J.J. Denman alternating with Taj Alexander at right tackle, running back Desmon Peoples flashed his big-play ability, wide receiver John Tsimis made a case for more playing time, highlighted by a 29-yard touchdown catch, defensive end Kemoko Turay had two sacks in his college debut and the defense did hold the Cougars to six net rushing yards on 14 attempts.
Rutgers resumes play on Sept. 6 in its home opener against Howard.
“(This win) does a lot (for us),” Nova said. “Last year, coming out here (to Fresno State), losing the way we did on a failed two-point pass play in overtime) … to come back out here to the West Coast and win the way we did, it kind of shows how hard we worked in the offseason and in camp.”