It’s pregame warm ups, and QB’s Chris Laviano and Hayden Rettig are warming up on the field at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, New Jersey. The two signal callers stretch out, trying to get loose during the crisp New Jersey afternoon. Laviano is tense-this will be the biggest game of his college career to date. To knock off an undefeated College Football Playoff contender would do wonders for the oldest football program in the world.
Laviano and Rettig each get warm by tossing a few routes to receivers Leonte Carroo, Andre Patton, and tight end Matt Flanagan. Laviano notes to Rettig how good it is to have Carroo reinstated, the best receiver in the B1G. Rettig grins and nods in agreement-“As long as he keeps himself out of trouble. Got to make sure nothing like that happens again. He should be alright.” Rettig then proceeds to launch a 60 yard rocket to Andre Patton, who took over for Carroo as the number one receiver during Carroo’s absence. Laviano whistles, “I see you!” Rettig chuckles. Eventually, they head back into the locker room to get suited up.
The team starts to get some energy going as game time approaches. Rutgers is wearing the black alternate jerseys that they currently have a three game win streak in. “I always loved these,” star tailback Paul James remarks to fellow running back Josh Hicks. Hicks nods but doesn’t say anything. He’s getting in the zone in preparation for the game. James lets out a long sigh, then mentally prepares himself for what he hopes will go down as a legendary day in Rutgers football history. James has had a rough go of it-the senior captain suffered a broken fibula in 2013 and tore his ACL last year. When healthy, the bruising back has proven himself to be one of the top halfbacks in college football, so much so that he was named to the Doak Walker Award Watch List prior to the 2015 season.
Ankles and wrists are taped. Cleats are laced up, braces are adjusted, and pads are tightened. Eventually, the thumping music is turned off. Defensive standouts Anthony Cioffi and Steve Longa take center stage. They demand everybody’s best effort and remind them of the ramifications of this game. Remember, they say, being the underdog is a lot of fun. There’s nothing to lose. Just play free.
The locker room erupts as the hooting and hollering of 50 some odd college football players grows deafening. The Scarlet Knights are ready to defend their home turf and fight for their much beloved but embattled coach, Kyle Flood, who many expected to be fired but managed to retain the support of many Rutgers players, fans, and boosters.
The High Point Solutions crowd roars as Rutgers takes the field. The stadium is rocking-music’s blasting, everybody’s excited, and the anticipation is almost palpable.
Michigan State sneers at the Rutgers players warming up, feeling arrogant about their place as a top 5 team in the country and a member of the old guard of the Big 10 conference. The Spartans assume this game is a given. Never mind the fact that they came inches away from losing to Purdue, whose lone victory came against FCS member Indiana State. Purdue then proceeded to get boat raced by Virginia Tech and throw up uninspiring performances against Marshall and Bowling Green, before coming out of nowhere to push Michigan State to the brink of a devastating loss. The Spartans are certain that this game is a warm up jumper to get them ready for the big dogs of the B1G.
Rutgers loses the coin toss and MSU elects to receive. Federico kicks it out of the end zone, and the MSU offense starts on the 20 yard line. MSU gets the party started with a simple dive play that nets them seven yards. Michigan State picks up a couple more first downs running the ball and with short completions, before Head Coach Mark Dantonio dials up a little play action look and star quarterback Connor Cook hits receiver Aaron Burbridge on a 20 yard completion over the middle to put them into Rutgers territory. Rutgers safety Anthony Cioffi makes a nice tackle on the play. Cook continues to make good throws, demonstrating why he’s a likely first round pick in next year’s NFL draft, pushing MSU to the Rutgers 15. A quick rollout pass to tight end Josiah Price puts the Spartans up 7-0.
Interim Coach Norries Wilson urges his team not to panic. No one hangs their head on the Rutgers sideline. Janarion Grant returns the kick to the 32 yard line, and Laviano and the offense take the field. James takes the ball to the edge before lowering his shoulder on an MSU cornerback and picks up 12 yards to start off the drive, eliciting cheers from the black-clad crowd. Laviano hits tight end Flanagan for a 6 yard pickup, and so on and so forth. Around midfield, Wilson calls a pass play that doesn’t quite materialize and Laviano is forced to scramble. As he sprints away from the pressure, MSU defensive end Shilique Calhoun dives and manages to trip up Laviano by the ankle. Laviano manages to throw it out of bounds and avoid the sack but comes up gimpy. On the next play, Josh Hicks hits it up the middle for an explosive 22 yard gain. After a pair of unsuccessful runs, Wilson calls another pass play on 3rd and 8. Laviano takes the snap from under center and drops back. He sees Andre Patton open on the curl route for a first down, but when he plants to make the throw, his ankle falters and the ball sails high. A frustrated Laviano grimaces as he returns to the sideline. Interim Coach Norris Wilson immediately recognizes that he isn’t right and instructs Rettig to get warm, despite Laviano’s dogmatic stance to the contrary, claiming he feels fine. Federico comes through with a nice 38 yard field goal.
MSU 7, Rutgers 3.
Sparty drives the offense back into the red zone, but a clutch sideline tackle by linebacker Steve Longa stalls the drive on a 3rd and 4. The Rutgers crowd loses their heads, as Michigan State is forced to kick a field goal. The first quarter ends shortly thereafter.
Rettig’s first drive is unsuccessful, as Rutgers hands the ball off three times and is forced to punt on a 4th and 3. MSU marches down the field and kicks another field goal, yet Dantonio seems annoyed his vaunted offense can’t seem to finish drives.
On Rutgers’ next drive, Justin Goodwin picks up 6 yards on first down. Wilson next calls for a deep shot to Carroo off a play action fake. Rettig executes the fake smoothly, but perhaps nerves get to him as he steps up in the pocket and absolutely launches the football equivalent of a Stinger missile into orbit. It’s over the heads of any Spartan defenders, but unfortunately it is also way out of range for Carroo. Carroo returns to the huddle shaking his head good-naturedly. “I’m fast man, but not that fast.” The Michigan State defenders give each other wary looks. Get deep. This dude can sling it. This Rutgers drive stalls out as well, but they get the ball back after Michigan State has a drop and a miscommunication on their next drive, punting the ball right back.
With 2:13 left on the clock, Rutgers goes into a hurry-up offense and Rettig finds his rhythm at the best possible time. Flanagan over the middle. Patton on a back shoulder fade. A surprise run up the gut out of the shotgun for Robert Martin. Too high for Carlton Agudosi in the slot, sails just over the hands of a MSU safety, who knocks Agudosi into next week. Agudosi pops up, giving the thumbs up as it was a clean hit to the midsection. Then it’s Rettig with the seven step drop, pump fake, deep ball to Carroo over the middle…TOUCHDOWN RUTGERS! Carroo jumps over the MSU defender, effectively “Mossing” him as the team goes bezerk.
HALFTIME: MSU 13, Rutgers 10.
Michigan State is frustrated that they aren’t playing up to the billing of many national pundits around the country. Rutgers is excited to be in this thing, but that’s not enough. They want to finish this thing off and win it. Purdue and Indiana are brought up, mentioned in the context of not quite completing the upset the week prior. Rutgers captains remind everyone to fight for injured star DT Darius Hamilton, Coach Flood, and QB Chris Laviano, who seems doubtful to return after he was seen on the sideline with a bag of ice on his swollen purple ankle. RU comes out of the tunnel juiced.
Michigan State kicks off to start the second half. Janarion Grant fields it at the two yard line and hits the whole behind the wedge. He spins out of one tackle and races toward the sideline. A roar builds in the crowd as Scarlet Knights fans realize what is happening. Grant sprints past a couple of diving defenders at the 40 and 45, and he’s off to the races with only the kicker to beat. Grant easily sidesteps the kicker and he’s home free. A disgusted Dantonio tosses his headset, as High Point Solutions erupts in jubilation. We could actually do this thing.
MSU QB Connor Cook is clearly frustrated with the conclusion the last few offensive drives and the performance of his defense, and he proves his mettle by surgically dissecting the Rutgers defense on the ensuing drive, ending with a 42 yard touchdown pass down the seam after Cook had all day in the pocket.
Rutgers chews up clock on their next drive and pushes the pigskin down to Sparty’s 32 yard line. After a personal foul-chop block-on a second down run by James, the Scarlet Knights are pushed back 15 yards. They run a stretch play to the left on the next play with Hicks, but MSU strings it out and Hicks is able salvage just a yard by diving forward at the last second. Rutgers is forced to attempt a coffin corner punt. Rutgers gets a nice punt, but the coverage team leaves something to be desired as two defenders are juked out of their cleats and a third attempts a flimsy arm tackle. The Michigan State returner is run out of bounds at the 25 yard line.
MSU drives up the field, chipping away at the Rutgers defense and carving out chunks of yardage. The clock stops to measure a third down run by Madre London. The officials bring out the sticks, measure, and declare a first down. The third quarter ends.
MSU 20, Rutgers 17
The continuing drive is a back breaker for Rutgers. Cook looks like he has time to ponder humanity’s deepest questions as he dissects the Rutgers secondary. Longa manages to put pressure on him just once, but Cook completes a 17 yard gain over the middle anyways. A tired Rutgers defense finally capitulates-the MSU O-line opens up a gap larger than the one in between Michael Strahan’s teeth and LJ Scott bursts through to the second level and coasts to paydirt. A collective groan revertabrates throughout High Point Solutions.
MSU 27, Rutgers 17
11:34 left in the 4th quarter.
Rutgers and MSU trade punts, though Rettig threads the needle on a nice ball to Andre Patton on the sidline, and throws a pretty ball to Carroo that MSU corner Demetrious Cox makes a superhuman effort on and manages to bat away at the last second.
Rutgers feels a pit of despair growing as time dwindles away. Conversely. MSU gains confidence as their defense continues to force three and outs. James slams his helmet and lets loose an expletive after yet another Rutgers drive stalls. With 6:45 left in the game, Rettig decides to take matters into his own hands. Starting the drive on their own 15, Rettig leads Rutgers down the field almost exclusively through the air and punctuates the drive with a bullet over the middle to Carroo. The glory is short lived, however Michigan State goes right back to work and scores yet another touchdown, this one coming through the air from Cook to Burbridge.
MSU 34, Rutgers 24.
Rutgers needs Janarion Grant to make something happen on the ensuing kickoff, and he delivers, bring the ball all the way back to midfield. The offense pushes the ball up to the 34 yard line, but to do anything but kick a field goal on 4th and 6 makes no sense.
MSU 34, Rutgers 27.
The Spartans take over with 2:32 remaining in the game. They whittle it down to 1:23 before being stuffed on a second down and 7. MSU decides to go through the air, but the downfield coverage is solid. Cook scans the field, keeping his feet active. Meanwhile, outside linebacker Quentin Gause manages to slip around the offensive tackle, despite nearly losing his footing. As Cook reaches back to finally pull the trigger, Gause reaches out and swats the ball out of his hand, backwards. Pandemonium ensues as both teams desperately dive for the ball. After the dust clears…Rutgers ball!
Replay confirms this, but Rutgers nearly blows it as Carroo catches a 5 yard hitch and tries to do much with it, attempting an awkward and ill-advised hurdle that gets him demolished. The ball pops out, to the horror of Rutgers fans across the nation, but it tumbles out of bounds moments before a Spartan defender could scoop it up. Norries Wilson squats down and lets out a long, slow, sigh. Rettig grabs his helmet and adopts a wide-eyed look of exasperation. Carroo gets up and violently shakes his head, evidently disgusted.
At that precise moment, a calm settles over the Rutgers football team. Suddenly, the moment seems no bigger than a practice in helmets only during a spring ball session in May. Rettig finds tight end Nick Arcidiacono over the middle for a 23 yard gain, no big deal. Carroo goes up between two Spartan defenders and snags it, routine. Suddenly, they are on the 12 yard line with just 15 seconds to go. Rettig takes the snap in the shotgun, doesn’t like what he sees, and fires it out of bounds. Live to fight another down. Hicks runs it to the sideline and desperately launches himself out of bounds to stop the clock. On the 7 with just 4 to go.
The biggest moment of anyone on that Rutgers football team’s life. Interim Head Coach Norries Wilson draws up a gutsy play.
James in the backfield with trips set of receivers to the right. A fullback in the backfield. Rettig snaps the ball from under center, pitches it to James. He’s nearly caught in the backfield as he nimbly avoids a blitzing linebacker. The pulling guards carve out green grass in front of Paul James. He hits it behind them, making it to the three yard line untouched. There is rudely welcomed by a MSU linebacker and safety, as he is crunched between them. Still, his momentum carries his forward down the goal line…TOUCHDOWN!
Wilson is going for two and the victory, there’s no question. It ends up being relatively simple. Rettig takes the shotgun snap and goes through the fake with Robert Martin, pulls it back and runs right. He strides past off balance defenders and walks in untouched.
Rutgers 35, MSU 34.
What just happened.
If people in Piscataway thought it was noisy throughout the game, that was nothing compared to what happs afterwards. Rettig drops to his knees. Paul James is teary eyed. Laviano is hooting and hollering his head off from the trainers table. Carroo has a new outlook on life. Norries Wilson just helped his job security a whole lot.
Sites I used for information:
“2015 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Football Depth Chart | Ourlads.com.” 2015 Rutgers Scarlet Knights Football Depth Chart | Ourlads.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.
“SCARLETKNIGHTS.COM Paul James Bio – Official Athletic Site Official Athletic Site – Football.” SCARLETKNIGHTS.COM Paul James Bio – Official Athletic Site Official Athletic Site – Football. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.
Dan Duggan | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com. “Rutgers Running Back Paul James Expected to Be 100 Percent Healthy for Training Camp.” N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.
“2015 Michigan State Spartans Football Depth Chart | Ourlads.com.” 2015 Michigan State Spartans Football Depth Chart | Ourlads.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2015.