PISCATAWAY, N.J. — When it comes to making game-changing plays against Syracuse, Rutgers linebacker Jamal Merrell might be at the top of the list over the past two seasons.
After blocking a field goal, an extra point and forcing a game-ending fumble in a double-overtime win a year ago, Merrell stuck it to the Orange again Saturday, blocking a field goal to set up a go-ahead 75-yard touchdown return by Duron Harmon early in the second half to lead No. 20 Rutgers to a 23-15 victory.
Big East defensive player of the year Khaseem Greene had 14 tackles, forced three fumbles, intercepted a pass and had 1½ sacks as Rutgers (6-0, 3-0) became bowl eligible for the seventh time in eight seasons.
But the big play in this one was the blocked field goal and Merrell might have lulled the Orange (2-4, 1-1) to sleep before knocking down Ross Krautman’s 32-yard attempt.
“The first PAT- field goal I heard them call my name out, 37, 37, 37,” Merrell said. “They gave it away they were keying me. The second one I played it easy. The third one … I didn’t hear 37 one time and I just shot it and they couldn’t stay with me. I just jumped right over them and made the play.”
The ball rolled toward the Syracuse bench and Harmon patiently picked it up, got a convoy of blockers and scored to put the Scarlet Knights ahead 14-7 instead of being down 10-7.
“It’s a big shift,” Harmon said. “Anytime you get a big play to where you can score on special teams or defense, it just helps out the overall team mood. That’s what it did. It gave up a big jump and after that we were off and gone.”
Krautman did not know what happened. Orange left tackle Justin Pugh took the blame, saying he missed his block. Merrell smiled, saying he came through the exact same guard-tackle hole that he did in making his plays last year.
“We had a chance to make some plays and get it closer early,” Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. “That has been the problem since I’ve been here. We’ve been hurting ourselves.”
The blocked kick was the 27th for Rutgers since 2009, best in the nation among major schools.
“That’s a huge play,” defensive tackle Scott Vallone said. “They’re going to take the lead and we take that to the house. That’s huge. That’s Rutgers. That’s what we have based our program on, defense, special teams, running the football. That’s a huge play in the game and one of the reasons we won the game.”
Jawan Jamison scored on a 1-yard touchdown run, Gary Nova threw a 12-yard touchdown to Tyler Kroft and walk-on placekicker Nick Borgese had a 25-yard field goal filling in for the injured Kyle Federico as the Scarlet Knights went 6-0 for only the third time since 1976.
Adonis Ameen-Moore scored on a 3-yard run and Ryan Nassib threw a late 40-yard touchdown pass to Christopher Clark and a 2-point conversion pass to Marcus Sales pass for error prone Syracuse, which had four turnovers, untimely penalties and failures in Rutgers’ territory.
Rutgers won despite being outgained 418-237 and having Jamison see his streak of 100-yard games rushing snapped at six. He finished with 64 yards on 28 carries.
With Syracuse headed to the ACC next season, this was the final conference game between the schools.
The lead grew to 10 points after Greene and Vallone sacked Nassib and forced a fumble that Ka’Lial Glaud recovered at the Rutgers 47.
Jamison ran seven times on the ensuing drive and Nova hit Brandon Coleman for 16 yards to set up Borgese’s kick. He played because Federico was hurt last week against Connecticut.
Greene forced Steve Rene to fumble on a punt return on the first play of the fourth quarter and Kevin Snyder recovered. Nova hit Kroft on third down for a touchdown. Borgese missed the extra points and it almost hurt the Scarlet Knights.
Nassib’s passing (25-of 42 for 356 yards) got the Orange within eight points with less than five minutes to play and Syracuse got the ball back with 2:45 to play. However, Brandon Jones intercepted Nassib on first down and Rutgers ran out the clock.
Jamison gave Rutgers a 7-0 lead with his short touchdown run, which capped a season-long 93-yard drive. Nova (14 of 23 for 152) set up the score with a 43-yard pass to Coleman to the 1-yard line.
Syracuse converted three third-down plays in its 80-yard drive that ended with Ameen-Moore powering into the end zone against the nation’s No. 2 ranked run defense.