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December 20, 2013

Rutgers seeks run-game spark

Neither his name nor his game is very flashy.

But in order for Rutgers to win a football game, 6-foot-0, 210-pound red-shirt junior Paul James better have the football in his hands and better have an effective outing, otherwise the Scarlet Knights are likely going to lose a football game.

“For us, it’s a combination of not being able to run the ball effectively when PJ is not in the game and making sure we make good decisions so we don’t turn the ball over,” said Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood earlier in the season when James was trying to overcome a right shoulder injury that sidelined him for four games.

“It’s not just one issue, it’s not as simple as just one player.”

And yet it’s pretty clear that when James is effective and a focal point of the Rutgers offense, the Scarlet Knights have a much better chance for success.

James has carried 146 times for 833 yards (5.7 yards per attempt) and nine touchdowns. The rest of the Scarlet Knights have carried 283 times for 771 yards (2.27 per carry). The 31 sacks suffered by quarterbacks Gary Nova and Chas Dodd have tarnished those numbers. But back-up running backs Justin Goodwin and Savon Huggins have combined for 192 carries totaling 797 yards, or just 4.1 yards per carry, with Huggins in particular dragging down the average.

James, a former preferred walk-on whose top offers were from Delaware and James Madison, has been at the forefront when Rutgers has had success in 2013. He rushed for 182 yards in a 52-51 overtime shootout loss to Fresno State. He had 119 yards and three touchdowns in an easy victory over Norfolk State, and another 192 and three scores the following week against Eastern Michigan. When James ran for 80 yards in a four-point victory over Arkansas, the Scarlet Knights were 3-1 with optimism heading into the American Athletic Conference portion of the schedule.

A shoulder injury sidelined James against SMU, Louisville, Houston and Temple - a stretch in which the Scarlet Knights went 2-2 - and then carried over into the next three games when he managed just 147 yards on 42 carries (3.5 yards per carry) as Rutgers’ average margin of defeat was 23.3 points per game.

After 11 games, Flood incorporated some zone-read plays to take advantage of quarterback Chas Dodd’s running ability. With a healthier James in the lineup for the regular-season finale against South Florida, James rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns as the Scarlet Knights claimed just their second victory in the last seven games.

“If you can line up with two backs and a tight end, and hand the ball off to somebody and run effectively, that’s great,” Flood said. “But we’re not in a situation where we can do that right now. We’re going to have to look at all options. When I look at our running game, we’re just not effective enough running the football with Paul James in there. We’ve got to be more effective.”

Upon the conclusion of the regular season, Flood fired 37-year-old offensive line coach Damian Wroblewski and replaced him with veteran Mitch Browning the third week of December.

When Rutgers takes on Notre Dame in the Dec. 28 Pinstripe Bowl, they’ll need James at the top of his game. Dodd will be making just his third start of the season (but 19th of his career) after replacing veteran Nova with two games left in the regular season.

Dodd and Nova have combined for 21 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. The Scarlet Knights will need James to keep the Irish defense honest, which is a possibility considering Notre Dame has been hit-and-miss against the run all season and will once again be without nose guard Louis Nix (knee).

Even if you exclude the option-based attacks of Air Force and Navy, who combined for 621 yards rushing against the Irish, Notre Dame still allowed 4.1 yards per carry and nearly 150 yards rushing (148.3) per game.

Stop the Rutgers rushing attack and it will be very difficult for Rutgers to out-score the Irish.







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