BY MIKE VORKUNOV
They may not exactly be soothing words to the ears of the Rutgers coaching staff but the Scarlet Knights defensive ends like to party and they like to do it on gamedays.
Not exactly the formula for success? Think again.
"Once one of us gets a sack we challenge the other guys to join. We call it a party in the backfield," said Jonathan Freeny. "So when we get to the party we say ‘You coming or you staying outside?'"
14 times this season Freeny and friends have had reason to party. Seven times, alone, last Saturday against Texas Southern.
The success of Rutgers pass rush has been keyed by a strength in numbers, both in the number of sacks they've totaled and the number of players totaling up the sacks. The bookend rotation on the defensive line goes four players deep, each one having started a party this year.Freeny leads the way with 6.5 sacks, George Johnson has 4.5, Justin Francis has two, and Alex Silvestro has one sack. Rutgers as a whole is third in the Big East with 18 sacks.
With a position group that goes four deep, it allows the coaches to shuffle players in and out. Making sure no one gets too tired on the field. But with strength in numbers, also comes a limit on playing time. Yet, nobody seems to mind.
"It keeps you fresh in the game," Silvestro said. "Sometimes you get really tired and you don't really have much, but the guy behind you does."
Instead Silvestro and Freeny both say that it allows them to motivate each other in practice and during games.
"It's great because all of those guys are great players," said Freeny. "Just having them all at practice every week pushing each other, giving each other energy throughout practice, it helps all of us."
"We push each other through it, you know ‘I got one, where you at?'" Silvestro said. "Mess around with each other, we like to joke around, we're really close. I think that really helps us too, that we bust each other up."
Even when they don't get the sack, the defensive line has created havoc for the offense. Rutgers has 43 quarterback hurries this season, 27 by the ends. The ability to disrupt the offense has been a big part of why the defense has become so offensive the last four games, scoring four touchdowns.
"When they're getting into the backfield, it makes it hectic back there for the quarterback," said David Rowe after being the beneficiary against Texas Southern, when he picked off a pass and ran it back 56-yards for a touchdown. "Sometime the quarterback will throw it up and all credit goes to the defensive line.
"The D-line, really the pass rush, is what creates opportunities for interceptions and they've been doing a good job lately."
The group is quickly building a reputation as a fearsome pass rush, and it is Freeny who has grabbed the most attention this year. Both for his on-field play and the strides he has made from last year.
His second-in-the-conference total has already eclipsed how many times he got to the quarterback his first two years at Rutgers, which was just once last season against Syracuse.
The difference in Freeny from last year to this one can be attributed to former Scarlet Knight Jamaal Westerman.
It was Westerman's graduation that forced Freeny to do extra repetitions over the summer to prepare him for his new role and opportunity this season. And it is Westerman who has served as a mentor for Freeny.
Over the summer the two would get together for learning sessions where the old guard would teach his pupil new tricks and skills. As this season approached and has developed the two still talk, with Westerman dropping by this past weekend, although just to talk life not football.
Still for all the success Freeny and his fellow pass rushers have had this season, there has been a mental asterisk attached. The competition they've done it against hasn't exactly been a murderer's row of opponents, or even one top 25 team amongst Howard, Florida International, Maryland and Texas Southern.
The one ranked team they have faced, now No. 8 Cincinnati, managed to counter the Rutgers pass rush. The Knights could only get to QB Tony Pike once, and hurried him just four times.
That opening-day defeat has since motivated the Knights.
"I think ever since then it's really helped us out," said Silvestro. "We take every single rush more seriously. We take more pass rush reps in practice so that definitely helps us."
Now comes the best measuring stick they'll get the rest of the season. Pittsburgh has allowed just four sacks all season, only one more than Cincinnati.
"Every game we try to prove, but this game especially is like another season because we're going into the Big East Conference," said Freeny. "So most definitely we'll wanna get pressure on the quarterback and all those things to prove we can do it against Pittsburgh."
If they can, Freeny and the defensive line won't be the only ones partying Friday night.
For more Rutgers news, you can follow Mike Vorkunov on Twitter at @Mike_Vorkunov