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EAST LANSING, MICH. — With one more game before the offseason began, the Rutgers football team had one more shot to end its losing streak and prove plenty of its doubters wrong. Even though they couldn’t get the win, the Scarlet Knights (1-11, 0-9) showed a gutsy performance in East Lansing in their season finale against Michigan State.
“I laid it all on the field,” said fifth-year senior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno who got the start in both his homecoming and his final collegiate game. “We as a team, we tried our hardest. The guys gave a tremendous amount of effort and I’m so proud of my team. We tried to go out with a win, but came up a little short.”
Rutgers dropped a closely contested and defense-heavy matchup against the Spartans (7-5, 5-4), 14-10.
Despite the loss, the Knights actually put up a much bigger fight than anybody inside Spartan Stadium had anticipated, taking a lead in the fourth quarter and giving Michigan State a late scare.
“The last five weeks I think we’ve been playing our best football and we’re gonna focus on that and move forward and continue to get better,” said head coach Chris Ash.
Headed to the fourth quarter in a 7-7 stalemate, Rutgers grabbed the lead on a 34-yard field goal by sophomore kicker Justin Davidovicz with just under 8 minutes left in the game.
But the Spartans answered with a touchdown about 4 minutes later to give them a 14-10 lead and eventual win.
“It was a battle of field position tonight and they won it at the end,” Ash said. “We had some missed opportunities, some critical penalties that obviously cost us in that game, but (I) couldn’t be more pleased with the attitude and effort and fight that our team put forth.”
On the drive before the Knights took the lead, they could have had something even bigger but Rescigno was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a questionable fourth down call.
With momentum on its side, Rutgers was marching down the field and found itself threatening inside Michigan State territory. Then, on 3rd and 5, Rescigno rushed for what looked like enough yards to get the first down, but it was called a yard short — that’s when Rescigno was called for the 15-yard penalty.
“Once I saw the replay, I was like ‘oh it’s a first down’ and my emotions maybe got to me a bit and the ref thought the same thing,” Rescigno said. “It is what it is.”
Rescigno finished his final game in a Knights uniform going 9-17 for 109 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was also the team’s leading rusher, scrambling for 61 yards on 13 carries.
And for most of the night, that was enough to win the game as Rutgers’ defense played extremely well, disrupting Spartan quarterback Rocky Lombardi all night. Lombardi finished 19-43 for 173 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
But, Michigan State’s defense was equally impressive, not letting the Knights find the end zone again after Rescigno connected with sophomore tight end Travis Vokolek in the first quarter which gave the team the early lead.
The Spartans also intercepted Rescigno’s final throw of the night with Rutgers threatening late in the game.
“Michigan State is a great defense, they play sound defense,” Rescigno said. “I got a lot of respect for those guys, I know a couple of guys on defense which was pretty cool to play against them. They just play good defense, sometimes they got the better of us and we got the better of them on a couple of plays.”
The loss means the Knights have gone winless in the Big Ten in 2 of the last 3 seasons, but Ash is looking forward to next season and points to all of the positives in a year that felt like it had none.
“We had a lot of young players playing and we did exactly what I hoped we’d do — play our best football down the stretch at the end,” he said.
Aside from a 42-7 blowout to No. 4 Michigan, which in its own way wasn’t as bad as it could have been, Rutgers did, in fact, play its best football in the final five weeks of the season starting with that 18-15 heartbreaker against No. 19 Northwestern — a game that now looks even bigger as the Wildcats are the Big Ten West champs.
Along with Northwestern and the Wolverines, the Knights had to play Wisconsin, No. 12 Penn State and most recently Michigan State.
“I remember when we started this stretch at the end, everybody thought it was gonna be brutal, everyone thought we were gonna get blown out, that we had no chance in games,” Ash said. “We had a chance in just about all of them.”
Rutgers will say goodbye to 16 graduating seniors this season and will look to its younger core group of players to step up next season.
“I really like a lot of the players that are coming back. They gotta get bigger, they gotta get stronger. We gotta stay consistent with some of the things we’re doing so the players develop and get better,” Ash said.
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.