This was probably the furthest thing from the sharp, flawless performance Rutgers was looking for as a final tuneup for next Saturday’s Big Ten Conference opener against Penn State.
But on a steamy, sweltering Saturday, the Scarlet Knights fought through the weather and distractions for a sluggish 38-25 victory over Howard before a crowd of 48,040 at High Point Solutions Stadium, enabling them to finally turn their attention to the anticipated visit by the Nittany Lions.
Gary Nova (15-of-19 for 282 yards) threw four touchdown passes and running back Paul James scored three times – all in the first half – as Rutgers improved to 2-0.
James caught two passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first running back in 25 years to have a 100-yard receiving game for the Scarlet Knights. James was in for just one play in the second half after Rutgers built a 24-point halftime advantage.
Desmon Peoples led the Scarlet Knights’ rushing attack with a career-high 55 yards on 11 carries.
Nova’s final pass of the day came with 44 seconds left in the third quarter when he threw a 19-yard touchdown to John Tsimis to give Rutgers a 38-13 lead. Because of sacks, the running game struggled to break the 100-yard mark, finishing with 109 yards on 38 carries.
Howard (0-2) then scored two touchdowns in the final 12:33, the first on a seven-yard run by quarterback Greg McGhee, with running back Terrance Tusan later breaking free for a 70-yard scoring run with 5:22 to play.
McGhee carried the offense for the Bison, throwing for 168 yards while rushing for 79 yards and a touchdown. The visitors totaled 437 yards of offense, getting 269 on the ground.
James’ singular ability to change a game – this time when Rutgers surprisingly needed a pick-me-up – had helped the Scarlet Knights wind up where they expected to be at halftime with a 31-7 lead at the break.
Coming off a 173-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance in the opener, James scored all three of his touchdowns in the first half, including the first two touchdown catches of his career. That enabled Rutgers to shake off a stunning early Howard score that saw the Bison take a 7-0 lead after their opening possession.
James, with an assist from Nova’s sharp first half (11-of-14 for 251 yards and three touchdowns), eventually had Rutgers back in control in the opening half.
It started simply enough, with James taking a swing pass from Nova. He shook off an early tackle attempt from diving cornerback Tamlin Antoine and then raced 69 yards down the sideline for the longest pass play of his career. It was also his first career touchdown catch, pushing the Scarlet Knights to a 10-7 lead.
From there, Rutgers took over the game on both sides of the line in the first half.
Nova connected with Leonte Carroo on a snappy 38-yard touchdown pass, James turned a lost Howard fumble into a seven-yard touchdown run and James then added a 31-yard score on yet another swing pass from Nova, shedding two would be tacklers to make it 31-7.
It marked James’ second straight game with three touchdowns and was his fifth multiple-touchdown game in 10 career starts.
The fourth-year junior finished with 43 rushing yards on 13 attempts to go along with those 100 receiving yards. Rutgers rolled up 343 yards of total offense on 34 plays through the first two quarters, adding just 54 yards in the second half.
Rutgers’ special teams weighed in as well. Placekicker Kyle Federico converted a 42-yarder on his only field goal try – he has made 10 of his last 12 now – while Kemoko Turay blocked a 28-yard field goal try by the Bison. It was the first of two blocked kicks in the game for the Scarlet Knights.