By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Sept. 2, 2014) – By the numbers, it’s pretty much what a coach would want from an experienced offensive line against a quality opening-day opponent: 215 rushing yards (and a 5.0-yard average), 281 passing yards, one sack allowed, 41 points produced.
But this Rutgers offensive line, a group that returns intact from a year ago, has set its sights even higher than that.
So as solid as the unit’s performance was in the 41-38 victory over Washington State on paper – the only time last year the Scarlet Knights topped 200 yards rushing and passing in a game was against Houston -- it left all five starters wanting more.
“That was a good start, to have (Paul James) with 173 (rushing yards) and Desmon Peoples with 36. But we’re trying to set our goal at 300 rushing yards or higher because that will help us out with the passing game for Gary (Nova),” said left tackle Keith Lumpkin. “So that’s what I would say about it – it’s a start.”
The experience of the group is why they’ve set the bar as high as they have.
“We have high expectations. We have a group of guys who are all back and a lot of guys have played a serious amount of games,” said right guard Chris Muller. “(Left guard) Kaleb Johnson has started 38 straight games, Betim Bujari is a three-year starter at center. Keith Lumpkin and I have a full season of starting behind us now.
“We’re very pleased with how we played in the opener. But we’re really excited because when you look back on the film there are so many things we can do to improve. There were so many plays where if we just held our block a little longer we would’ve had a break of 60 yards. It’s exciting to see that and watch that. We performed very well but we can do so much more if we play better.
“We want to be a wrecking ball every game.”
Saturday’s visit by Howard (0-1) likely won’t be the next true test the group is looking for, since the Bison were 41-0 losers to Akron in their opener and Rutgers is 10-0 all-time against MEAC schools by a combined score of 405-36.
But a week later, when that team from Central Pennsylvania visits, how the Scarlet Knights’ Big Ten debut goes will depend largely on the offensive line play.
“We had a good first game to start to get to where we need to be as a group – where I know we can be as a group,” said Johnson. “If I had to put a percentage on (how close to peak efficiency) we are, I’d probably say we’re at 75 percent. Hopefully by week four or week five we’ll have everything running smoothing and be a lot closer to where I know we can be.”
Lumpkin said he felt the experience of the offensive line was on full display against an equally-experienced Washington State defense. The one sack allowed was by J.J. Denman, filling in at times at right tackle for Taj Alexander and playing in just his second college game.
“I think our experience did show,” Lumpkin said. “It wasn’t just us that had everyone coming back from last year. Washington State had most of their defensive guys coming back from last year, too. So it was a question of who would show their dominance more and I feel we came out more successful than they did.”
Johnson said the pass blocking was slight ahead of the run blocking, which both surprised and disappointed him.
“We did a pretty good job communicating and working together. But the backs made us look good as well in the run game,” he said. “Don’t forget, I come from a high school where if we didn’t have 400 yards rushing it was kind of embarrassing. So I am shooting for the stars. I’m setting the bar as high as possible for us.”