EAST HARTFORD, Conn. - Needing a victory to wrap up bowl eligibility, Rutgers fell shy of that feat today in a 28-17 loss to a now 2-9 UConn team, which was among the nation's worst BCS programs. It was the Scarlet Knights' fifth defeat in the last six games.
Previous blowout losses to Houston, Cincinnati and UCF along with multiple de-commitments on the recruiting trail did not hit as hard as today's defeat.
The Scarlet Knights were outclassed on both sides of the football by a program operating under an interim head coach and in possession of one of the worst statistical profiles in the country.
On defense, the Scarlet Knights surrendered 372 yards of total offense to a team averaging 291.3 yards per game coming in. They allowed Huskies redshirt quarterback Casey Cochran to complete 25-of-33 passes for 311 yards and two touchdowns, and rarely pressured the signal caller outside of two sacks on the opening drive of the second half.
Perhaps most damning , Cochran and the Huskies converted nine-of-15 third downs including the first three of the game, leading to two scores, and four on the game's final drive, including the game-clinching touchdown pass.
"I think we're going to look at the film and see we were a lot closer in our pass defense than where we've been, but that's not enough," said head coach Kyle Flood. "That's not good enough. You have to make those plays. When their quarterback is 9-of-15 on third down, it's not enough to be close. But I know we were close and it's certainly better to be closer now than you were last week, but at some point we're going to make those plays."
One of the major missed opportunities involved freshman cornerback Nadir Barnwell. With the score 21-17 in favor of the Huskies midway through the fourth quarter, Barnwell let a sure interception slip through his hands near midfield.
"That was in my hands," Barnwell said. "I don't make excuses, but I saw the ball coming out of his hands and I kept telling myself I've got a pick. I lost it in the light, and then I saw it again and it was passing by my hands.
"I was definitely [ticked] off at myself because it would have stopped the drive. I had an opportunity to return it and put the offense in good field position. If I would've picked it, they wouldn't have scored again and we would have been up. It definitely was a lot there. But you've got to reload and move on to the next play."
The next play was a 19-yard connection from Cochran to Dhameer Bradley on a dig route, a pass pattern that has destroyed Rutgers' porous zone week in and week out.
"I think what I see is probably the same thing that you see - teams continue to attack us in the dig hole," Flood said. "We did some things differently today. But then when you do things differently, you're practicing against what you're seeing on film. You're not practicing against what they adjust to in the game. So it's going to get harder to adapt as the rest of the game goes on. When we go back and look at the film, we're going to see some opportunities where we were close. But that's not good enough."
Perhaps most frustrating of all is the fact the Scarlet Knights continue to make the same mistakes as they have all season.
"That's something we've got to work on," said linebacker Steve Longa. "When you keep seeing it and you don't defend it very well like we should, that's frustrating because there is something going wrong that we're doing. There's something we're not doing right. We've got to own up to our mistakes and that starts with us players."
Rutgers' multiple defensive mishaps are the result of shared blame, according to Rutgers defensive tackle Darius Hamilton.
"I think that goes both ways," said Hamilton. "I think sometimes we're in the wrong assignments, we do the wrong things schematically. But I think a lot of times, coaches put us in great position to make plays. We've just got to make them at the end of the day."
On the other side of the ball, the Scarlet Knights didn't fare much better. The team drove downfield on the game's opening drive, converting a third and fourth down, before scoring on holder J.T. Tartacoff's 10-yard fake field goal pass to Tyler Kroft.
But from there, Rutgers could muster only one offensive touchdown. Leading rusher Paul James picked up 49 yards on 11 carries before leaving with a leg injury, and his replacements Savon Huggins and Justin Goodwin combined for only 28 yards on 13 rushes.
The Scarlet Knights converted just 4-of-14 third downs, often facing third-and-long situations as a result of an ineffective rushing attack and some peculiar play calling (offensive coordinator Ron Prince inexplicably tried to utilize the read option on multiple occasions, despite it not fitting Dodd's skillset).
"I think it starts with a lack of efficiency in the run game," Flood said of the third down struggles. "As those third downs get longer, they become harder to convert. We made up for it a little bit on fourth down, because we converted three fourth downs. But we'll look at every one of them [third downs] individually and critique them. But I know this, if we can run the ball better, those third downs become a lot [better]."
Elsewhere, a 26-yard touchdown pass from Chas Dodd to Ruhann Peele was overturned as the result of a Chris Muller personal foul penalty for illegal hands to the face.
Dodd, who replaced Gary Nova as the starting quarterback, completed just 16-of-35 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns, operating much of the game out of shotgun and pistol.
"I think I obviously could have done better," Dodd said. "There were a few errant balls that I wish I could have back. But again, just got to put it behind us now and get ready for next week."
Next week is the regular-season finale, at home against USF on Saturday night. The Scarlet Knights need a win to salvage a bowl berth and will likely be playing in front of dwindling crowd support, as well as a group of impressionable recruits on official visits.
As bleak as things look, Hamilton insists the team is capable of putting on a better performance.
"The character in this locker room -the guys that I play with and the guys that I line up next to and the guys on the opposite side of the ball-I know what kind of people they are and I know how hard they work. That's why you'll never see us put our heads down."