PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Rutgers not only survived a valiant effort by mistake-prone Army, the 24th-ranked Scarlet Knights got some outside help and now find themselves alone atop the Big East.
Brandon Coleman ignited a 21-point burst in the final 8:48, scoring his second touchdown of the game on a 31-yard pass from Gary Nova, and Rutgers defeated Army 28-7 Saturday.
Duron Harmon finished off the win with a 73-yard fumble return in the final minute. The victory helped lift an area hit hard by Hurricane Sandy and a nor’easter in the past two weeks.
“It was a great feeling because this community has been through a lot these past two weeks,” Harmon said. “Just giving them something to cheer about is a great feeling. That’s the reason we came up, we knew we were going to get a win for this community.”
Rutgers (8-1, 4-0) is the only team in the conference still unbeaten in league play. No. 11 Louisville (9-1, 4-1) lost to Syracuse 45-26.
The Scarlet Knights, coming off their first loss of the season, close with games at Cincinnati and Pittsburgh and finish the season at home against Louisville. If they can sweep, they will win their first conference title and a BCS bid.
“I don’t see it as the driver’s seat,” coach Kyle Flood said. “I do not know that was the outcome of that game. I am never surprised in this league by any outcome. Top to bottom it is an extremely competitive league. For us to be thinking about any three games would be a big mistake.”
Rutgers got a 2-yard touchdown run from Savon Huggins a little more than two minutes after Coleman’s go-ahead catch.
Weakside linebacker Khaseem Greene had 22 tackles and a forced fumble, his sixth of the season.
“I don’t expect any game to be easy, especially against Army to be easy,” said Coleman, who also caught a 16-yard TD in the first half on a halfback option from Jawan Jamison. “They gave us their best shot. I respect them.”
Army (2-8) could not overcome three lost fumbles, a dropped touchdown pass, two blocked field goals and three late game-changing miscues.
Trent Steelman scored for Army on a 1-yard run on its opening series, but Rutgers kept the Black Knights off the board the rest of the way with its No. 4 ranked run defense limiting the nation’s No. 1 ground game (375 yards) to 282 yards, including 86 in the second half.
“It goes from the miscues, to the fumbles, to the missed field goals and just not finishing,” said Steelman, who now has 1,013 yards rushing this season after gaining 102 on 26 carries. “We pride ourselves on finishing every time we get the ball, and we didn’t get it done today.”
The game was tied at 7 with less than 11 minutes to play when Army self-destructed with the first of two costly mistakes in the punting game.
Punter Chris Boldt made the first one, shanking his kick 9 yards to the Army 45.
Runs of 5 and 9 yards by Jamison got the ball to the 31. Nova capped the four-play drive finding Coleman in the right corner of the end zone after the sophomore beat safety Justin Trimble for a 14-7 lead.
Army went three and out on its next series and freshman snapper Andrew Ellerson air-mailed the ball over Boldt on a play that started at the Rutgers 31. The Black Knights recovered the ball at their own 1, but it went to Rutgers on down.
After losing a yard on first down, Huggins scored from 2-yards out.
Harmon closed out the scoring with 40 seconds to go, catching a fumble by backup quarterback A.J. Schurr in mid-air and taking it for a touchdown. That capped off the Scarlet Knights’ ninth straight win over the Black Knights, who were coming off an impressive upset of Air Force.
Army dominated the first half and left the field tied at 7 because it had two field goals blocked, lost a fumble by Steelman in the red zone and saw receiver Chevaughn Lawrence drop a would-be touchdown pass in the final minute.
The Black Knights outgained Rutgers 212-96, with 196 yards coming on the ground despite losing fullback Larry Dixon to an ankle injury for most of the half.
If there was anything surprising about the half, it was the Scarlet Knights’ decision to only let Nova throw only five times. The sophomore quarterback was intercepted six times in their last game two weeks ago, but the decision was surprising because Army didn’t seem to have the personnel in the secondary to cover a group of speed.
Army took the opening kickoff and went 76 yards in 16 plays with Steelman capping the drive from a yard out. The Black Knights converted three third-down plays with the biggest being a 26-yard run by Dixon to the Rutgers 6.
Marcus Cooper blocked a 43-yard field goal attempt by Daniel Grochowski on the Black Knights’ next possession.
The Scarlet Knights tied the score early in the second quarter with a little trickery — Jamison’s halfback pass to Coleman — at the end of an 11-play, 74-yard drive.
Army had a chance to take the lead on the next series, but Steelman (26 carries for 108 yards) fumbled at the Rutgers 11. The Black Knights still had another chance later in the half but Lawrence dropped Steelman’s 13-yard pass into the end zone and Lorenzo Waters blocked a low 30-yard field goal attempt by Grochowski.
The Black Knights have a 12-game losing streak in games played away from West Point, and they have lost 15 straight against Big East competition. They have not defeated a ranked team since knocking off Air Force in 1972.
“We’re all right,” Army coach Rich Ellerson said. “We’ll be all right. The guys like to play. They are mad as hell. They are frustrated, but they’re competing and they are keeping score. We’ll be all right.”