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PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- The Rutgers Scarlet Knights squandered a golden opportunity Saturday against the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Starting quarterback Tom Savage suffered bruised ribs, and perhaps a bruised ego, in the process.
Savage took a big hit late in the first half and missed the first series of the second half while team doctors examined him in the locker room. He returned after that and led his team on a potential game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter. But his second interception of the game brought the comeback to a screeching halt, and the Scarlet Knights fell to the Tar Heels 17-13.
With North Carolina missing 12 players, including six defensive starters, because of an NCAA investigation, Rutgers had a great chance to notch a win against an ACC team and go 3-0 on the young season. Instead, the Scarlet Knights are left to wonder what might have been.
|Tom Savage completed 16 of 29 passes against North Carolina on Saturday.|
"Certainly had our opportunities to win that football game, but we were unable to do it," said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
Schiano's players made several critical mistakes that ultimately cost them this game. A pass-interference penalty in the third quarter and a blocked punt in the fourth led to North Carolina scores.
But the two plays that will stand out most were the two picks thrown by Savage, both occurring in the red zone.
The first one was in the second quarter, with Rutgers leading 10-0 and having a chance to extend that lead. North Carolina instead returned the ball 55 yards and scored a touchdown soon after to make it 10-7. The momentum of the game shifted from there.
The second interception cost Rutgers a chance to complete what would have been a stirring comeback.
Savage shouldered the blame after the game, expressing frustration with himself and his play.
"I wasn't really going against the defense, I was going against myself really," Savage said. "I mean the guys are open, everyone sees it. I think our offense did a lot of good things and there's a lot of things we can improve on, which falls to me."
He finished the day 16-for-29 for 150 yards along with the two interceptions.
Savage did face quite a bit of pressure from the Tar Heels' defense -- he was sacked four times on the day. And he deserves credit for hanging in the pocket time and time again, even in the second half after suffering the injury.
He refused to use the injury as an excuse. In fact, he pinpointed another reason for his struggles.
"That's pretty much what it is -- my inaccuracy -- is just my feet," Savage said. "My feet are terrible right now. I know what I need to work on."
But it also may have been hard for Savage to get into a rhythm throwing the ball because of Rutgers' use of its Wildcat package.
Rutgers featured the Wildcat formation, with wide receiver Mohamed Sanu under center, extensively against North Carolina, and especially in the first three quarters. Savage was constantly coming on and off the field, which certainly could make it harder for a quarterback to get into a groove. It also might make a quarterback wonder how much confidence his coaching staff has in him.
Schiano said the game plan all along was to feature the Wildcat against North Carolina, and he did not think it was a bad idea.
"We have studied a lot of Wildcat teams," Schiano said. "I don't think it affected Arkansas when they were doing it really well. When you are doing it well, it doesn't affect you. When you are doing it poorly, it affects you."
It wasn't very successful for Rutgers on Saturday -- Sanu carried the ball 15 times and gained only 41 yards on the ground, a paltry 2.7 yards per carry.
Savage was terse when asked about the use of the Wildcat after the game.
"Coach says that's what works, then that's what works," Savage said.
Injuries and Wildcat formations aside, Savage definitely hasn't had the start to the year he was for hoping for. He was much-heralded coming into the season after a strong freshman campaign in which he threw for 2,211 yards -- the most by a true freshman in Big East history -- and 14 touchdowns.
Through three games this season, he has completed just 52 percent of his passes and has thrown for only one touchdown.
"It's frustrating when you know you can do it. It's frustrating when you've made the throws before. It's frustrating when you know the guys are open," Savage said. "I know my talent and I know I can make the throws and that's it. And I will."
Savage said he expects to be able to play next Saturday, when the Scarlet Knights will host Tulane on Homecoming Weekend.
Whether his sophomore slump will continue or not, we'll have to wait and see.
Kieran Darcy is a staff writer for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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