Rutgers' defense gets 1 big play in 16-14 loss
LOUISVILLE, Ky.—Defense has been helping the Rutgers Scarlet Knights out all season. They couldn't do enough against Louisville.
Two first-quarter interceptions off freshman quarterback Gary Nova put Rutgers behind early, and their big-play defense couldn't dig out Friday night as the Scarlet Knights lost 16-14 at Louisville.
Rutgers led the nation in takeaways entering the game but forced just one turnover, an interception in the Louisville end zone with 2:08 to play. Needing a field goal to win the game, Nova threw his third pick of the night three plays later as Dexter Heyman jumped in front of wideout Mohamed Sanu to all but seal the Cardinals' victory.
"It was uncharacteristic of us," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "We had opportunities to make plays but we just missed tackles."
Rutgers came in forcing four turnovers a game and an equal number of sacks entering Friday, but the Scarlet Knights failed to register a single sack of Louisville's freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The Scarlet Knights also had to settle for two field goals in the first half only to see San San Te miss attempts of 31 and 25 yards. Te is fourth among active players with 56 career field goals.
"We missed opportunities," Schiano said. "They were two big missed opportunities. At the end of the day they were very important points."
The Scarlet Knights (5-2, 2-1) came in leading the Big East. Thanks to No. 11 West Virginia's 49-23 loss to Syracuse, Rutgers will host the Mountaineers on Oct. 29 still atop the league.
"I didn't even know they lost, but a loss is a loss," Nova said. "It hurts, but we are going to get back at it this weekend. We've got a lot more football left."
Louisville (3-4, 1-1 Big East) capped a week in which Strong signed a new contract.
Jeremy Wright ran for a career-high 108 yards on just 11 carries, the first Cardinals running back to top 100 yards this season. Dominique Brown also ran for a TD. Strong said he told his offense at halftime to go out focused on scoring.
"It wasn't a pretty game, but the guys did it," Strong said.
The Scarlet Knights struggled to find the end zone against a Louisville defense ranked 16th in the nation giving up just 16.3 points per game.
They pulled to 16-14 with 14:10 left after driving 80 yards over 14 plays when Nova tossed a 12-yard TD pass to Sanu. That was as close as they would get as Mark Harrison dropped a would-be touchdown with the nearest defender 10 yards away, and Rutgers wound up punting on fourth-and-1 with 7:06 left.
"I looked up and I was like, 'Oh my God, how's that guy get so wide open? 'Cause we were in zone coverage, so that should never happen," Strong said.
David Rowe gave Rutgers one last chance when he ran down a ball in the end zone Bridgewater seemed to be throwing away with 2:08 left. But Heyman clinched the victory when he picked off Nova, allowing the Cardinals to run out the clock. Nova, a true freshman, said he hadn't lost a game since eighth grade. He said he didn't see the defender on the final interception.
"I don't like this feeling, and I don't plan on feeling like this again," Nova said.
The Cardinals had struggled in their three-game skid scoring in the second half, managing only one touchdown. They also came in giving up more than 3.5 sacks a game, fourth-worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"Oh, they blocked people finally," Strong said of his line.
Against Rutgers, the Cardinals also got their rushing game going behind Wright, Brown and Vic Anderson. They ran for 134 of their 187 yards in the second half, and that helped Chris Philpott cap the opening drive with Louisville's longest field goal since 1989. The field goal tied the record held by three others, and he became the first kicker in school history to kick two field goals of at least 51 yards in the same season.
Bridgewater added to the lead capping a 68-yard drive with an 18-yard TD pass to Michaelee Harris, a former Northwestern High teammate in Miami, with 6:10 left in the third.
Rutgers was lucky to be tied at 7-7 at halftime after two interceptions in Nova's first four passes to end the first two drives of the game and the missed field goals.
Brown scored on a 1-yard run for only Louisville's third rushing TD this season and just the second by a running back -- and the first since the season opener. That put the Cardinals up 7-0 midway through the first quarter in a lead that would have been more if not for Philpott pushing a 43-yard field goal wide left.
Marcus Cooper blocked Philpott's punt with 2:38 left in the second quarter, taking advantage of a low snap for the block. That set the Scarlet Knights up at the Louisville 26, but they didn't score until the final play of the half as Savon Huggins ran in easily for the tying TD.