After spending the first 59 minutes trying to slow down Washington State’s pass-happy offense with only moderate success, Rutgers’ defense saved its best for last.
With the Scarlet Knights clinging to a three-point lead, the defense held firm against quarterback Connor Halladay on his final drive tonight, enabling Rutgers to emerge with a 41-38 victory over Washington State at century Link Field in the season opener.
Halliday finished 40-of-56 for 532 yards and five touchdowns but could not solve the Scarlet Knights’ defense when it mattered most.
Rutgers was able to take that 41-38 lead in a back-and-forth second half just when things looked bleak. Trailing 38-34 after Halliday’s five-yard touchdown pass to Rickey Galvin with 8:13 to play, the Scarlet Knights were forced to punt.
But Johnathan Aiken’s hit on returner River Cracraft forced a fumble that teammate Anthony Cioffi recovered at midfield. From there, the Scarlet Knights marched the rest of the way for the eventual game-winning touchdown, getting it when Paul James scored from three-yards out with 3:24 to play, his third rushing touchdown of the game.
James rushed for 173 yards on 29 carries, while Gary Nova passed for 281 yards and two scores. Wide receiver Leonte Carroo caught six passes for 151 yards and a touchdown as Rutgers beat a Pac-12 school for the first time in its history.
Nova’s second touchdown pass of the game, and John Tsimis’ first of his career, had given Rutgers the lead back at 34-31 with 10:50 to play after those two hooked up on a 29-yard scoring play.
Prior to that, Washington State had taken its first lead of the game at 24-21 on its opening possession of the second half as Halliday continued his hot hand. Rutgers would force a 24-24 tie on Kyle Federico’s 36-yard field goal on the very next series before Halliday picked up where he left off.
This time he finished a drive with a 14-yard touchdown pass – his fourth of the game -- to Isiah Myers to get Washington State back on top at 31-24.
But Rutgers wasn’t finished.
Federico, who has made 10 of his last 12 field goals, connected on a 25-yard and to make it 31-27 and Nova then capitalized on a defensive stop. He did that by engineering a 73-yard drive that ended with the touchdown pass to Tsimis, giving the Scarlet Knights the lead back a 34-31 in the wild passing affair.
Rutgers’ ability to make just enough plays – thanks in large part to James and a defense that did its best to hold firm in the onslaught of Washington State’s passing game – was the difference as the Scarlet Knights claimed a 21-17 halftime lead.
James tore through the Cougars’ defense in the first two quarters, rushing for 110 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries. The highlight was a 56-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter that pushed the Scarlet Knights’ lead to 21-10.
Though Rutgers led from the very first play from scrimmage – literally – Washington State’s relentless passing attack kept the Pac-12 team always within arm’s length through the first two quarters. Cougars’ quarterback Connor Halliday finish the first half 20-of-29 for 289 yards with two touchdown passes and an interception.
But he was always playing catchup early, starting with Nova’s 78-yard touchdown strike to Carroo on Rutgers’ first play.
Halliday had his share of big plays in the first half, but the Scarlet Knights’ defense had theirs as well, most notably on a fourth and two play midway from the Rutgers six yardline through the first quarter.
Halliday completed a crossing pass to Vince Mayle, who was stopped short of the first down by safety Johnathan Aiken. That preserved Rutgers’ 7-0 lead.
But the offenses and the offensive stars were just getting warmed up.
Rutgers built a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter thanks to a 12-play, 75-yard drive capped by James’ one-yard touchdown run.
Halliday answered with a four-yard touchdown pass to Isiah Myers that finished off an 80-yard drive, making it 14-10.
That’s when Rutgers responded once more, with James breaking loose for that 56-yard touchdown run to push the Scarlet Knights’ advantage back to 21-10. Back came Halliday for more, though.
This time he moved the Cougars 72 yards in eight plays, connecting with Mayle for a 26-yard touchdown. Washington State was within 21-17 with 1:42 left before the half at that point. The Cougars had a chance to get even closer, but Eric Powell’s 50-yard field goal try on the final play of the first half glanced off the upright.
Nova, meanwhile, finished the half 5-for-10 for 107 yards with a touchdown pass and interception. And while Washington State managed gaudy passing numbers as usual, the Cougars rushed for just 18 yards on nine carries in the opening half.