MIAMI – It will not go down into the annals of Rutgers history, which is much better than what could transpired, which is an epic loss.
Rutgers turned Florida International over fives and blocked two punts, but still needed a fourth-stand stop with less than two minutes to play and a 17-yard run by Jordan Thomas to feel secure.
At the end, though, the Scarlet Knights left south Florida with jersey-drenched 19-14 win on an oppressively hot and humid night in front of an announced crowd of 19,872 at FIU Stadium thanks to superb defensive and specials teams play, and 14 penalties on Florida International.
“I walk away really pleased with the fact that our football team has been able to keep choppin’ through the moment for eight quarters now,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “We have not lost our focus. Certainly tonight there were so many opportunities. And how do games get out of hand?
“When things are going against you and all of a sudden you start freelancing. I was very proud that our kids did their job.”
Senior safety Joe Lefeged did a lot of the damage with two forced fumbles, an interception and two blocked punts, one of which led to receiver Mohamed Sanu’s game-winning 24-yard touchdown run with 13:07 to play.
Sanu’s run, which came out of the “Wildcat” and was the play after Lefeged’s second block, gave Rutgers a 19-14 lead.
Lefeged, who forced two fumbles, had an interception and also made six tackles, said the defense did not get frustrated with the offense’s problems.
“That’s one thing we focused on all week, that’s one thing that coach talks about, staying in the moment, keep choppin’,” Lefeged said. “Don’t worry about the result, don’t think too much into the future, just stay in the moment.”
The win kept the Scarlet Knights (2-0) perfect on the season and sends them into a bye before the Sept. 25 game against North Carolina with much to work on, but in a much better frame of mind.
However, quarterback Tom Savage may have had his worst game, completing 7 of 15 passes for 72 yards, an interception, a fumble and a botched snap.
The Scarlet Knights’ running game accounted for 76 yards on 38 attempts, and that includes the 44 yards gained by Sanu on nine runs from the Wildcat. Sanu also was part of Rutgers’ other touchdown, connecting with tight end D.C. Jefferson for a 24-yard score late in the second quarter to give Rutgers a 10-7 lead.
In the first half, Rutgers forced five turnovers, but led only 13-7. It did not have first down until the second quarter and had 93 yards of offense in the first half.
“We weren’t very productive in the pass game but I think it’s easy to say (it is) Tom,” Schiano said. “If you watch …there weren’t a lot of receivers open.”
The defense bent in yielding 371 yards, including Wesley Carroll touchdown passes of 28 and 17 yards, but also turned the Golden Panthers (0-1) over five times in the first half as the Scarlet Knights intercepted two passes and recovered three fumbles.
Although the Golden Knights took a 14-13 lead less than two minutes into the third quarter on pass play from Carroll to Jeremiah Harden, Rutgers defense tightened.
After that, Florida International had seven possessions, five of which ended in punts, one in a missed field goal and another on downs. The Golden Panthers netted 32 yards on those final seven drives.
“To be down by five after committing as many penalties as we did …we put ourselves in a bad situation and it’s a shame because our defensive effort was phenomenal,” FIU coach Mario Cristobal said. “We won a lot of battles as well. We just kept hamstringing ourselves with penalties.”