PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Special teams was the story of the game in a 23-15 victory for No. 20 Rutgers over Syracuse, but not in the way many expected. Kicking was not an issue for Rutgers with starter Kyle Federico injured, but it lost the game for Syracuse.
The Orange had momentum, field position and a chance to take a lead until linebacker Jamal Merrell reintroduced himself to Cuse kicker Ross Krautman.
Merrell, who stole the show last year with a blocked kick and forced fumble, slapped down a potential go-ahead field goal attempt that gave Rutgers the lead instead when safety Duron Harmon scooped and scored from 75 yards out.
“I think it’s a tremendous momentum swing,” said head coach Kyle Flood. “They had a very positive drive coming out to start the second half. … It really goes from being a positive momentum swing in their favor to a tremendous positive momentum swing in our favor because of the block and then, ultimately, the scoop and score.”
Special teams provided the dagger 15 minutes later on a punt. Senior linebacker Khaseem Greene ripped the ball out of Steve Rene’s hands on the 14-yard line. Recovered by Kevin Snyder, Rutgers iced the game three plays later with a touchdown catch by tight end Tyler Kroft – his first career touchdown.
The Rutgers defense took care of the rest.
Greene finished with an incredible individual stat line – 14 tackles, three forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
“I feel I was just playing for my brothers,” Greene said. “I felt the energy from them and I know I had to give it back to them and that’s what I did.”
Quarterback Ryan Nassib accumulated yards for the Orange offense, but lost plenty as well. Rutgers countered the no-huddle Syracuse attack with a tough pass rush led by defensive end Ka’Lial Glaud.
Despite a 356-yard day from Nassib, Rutgers forced four turnovers and sacked Nassib times.
Quarterback Gary Nova led Rutgers to more of the same on offense – enough big plays to extend drives and a safe showing.
Nova has now gone four straight games without a turnover, though the Orange defense held Jawan Jamison under 100 yards.
First-time kicker Nick Borgese remained under the radar, which was exactly what he hoped to do when replacing Federico as the starter. Borgese made two of three extra points and booted a field goal from within the red zone.
“It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve been through,” said Borgese, who won the kicking job in a four-man contest this week. “I was non-travel before. Seeing all the fans and stuff, it’s fun. It’s a great experience. When you’re actually in a game, there’s nothing else like it.”
The Scarlet Knights (6-0, 3-0) are bowl eligible with the victory over Syracuse and likely approach a top-15 spot in the national polls. With an easier stretch of games, including Kent State and Army at home, Rutgers has a chance to truly mirror its 2006 start.
The 6-0 start for Flood is the best in school history for a first-year coach and it has the Scarlet Knights in first place in the Big East with three conference wins.
“It’s exciting to be bowl eligible again,” Flood said. “… As I’ve said before, our goals are bigger than that, but it is something that we worked very hard for.”