Against North Carolina’s newfound aerial attack, Rutgers’ last line of defense is its best.
Safety Joe Lefeged is the Scarlet Knights’ third-leading tackler and was a preseason second-team All-Big East selection. Two games into his senior season, Lefeged — pronounced Le-fedge — is already living up to expectations.
In Rutgers’ second game of the season, Lefeged didn’t just have a career day. He had a historic day.
In a 19-14 win against Florida International, Lefeged made six tackles, broke up a pass, forced two fumbles and intercepted a pass for 29 yards. Lefeged’s interception also set up a 32-yard touchdown drive, putting the Scarlet Knights ahead 10-7 in the second quarter.
His performance won him the national Jim Thorpe Defensive Back of the Week award, and Lefeged became the first Big East player in conference history to garner the Defensive and Special Teams Player of the Week awards in the same week.
“It takes a lot of film study (to prepare for Lefeged),” UNC senior tight end Zack Pianalto said. “I know he’s a great player, but you just attack it the same each week. Rutgers is a very sound team, very sound defense, so they’re going to present a lot of challenges for us, but three days of practice and a good game plan, hopefully we’ll be ready to go.”
But UNC’s offense isn’t the only unit affected by Lefeged. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound playmaker also blocked two punts against Florida International University, the second of which was at the FIU 24-yard line and set up the game-winning touchdown. Lefeged also returns kicks for Rutgers.
“I’m really just starting to learn a little bit about him this week,” UNC sophomore wide receiver Erik Highsmith said.
“I heard he’s pretty athletic and he had two blocks — two blocked punts — an interception, so yeah, we’re going to cut some plays to get him biting down on us and then we’ll beat him over his head.”
After Lefeged’s performance, the safety received a phone call from friend and former teammate Devin McCourty, who is now a rookie cornerback with the New England Patriots.
McCourty’s call might have left a more lasting impression on Lefeged than the awards, as he reportedly told the safety his performance reminded McCourty of himself.
But Lefeged’s career day will only be a ripple in UNC’s game plan.
The Scarlet Knights boast a very deep and talented defensive unit that ranks 17th nationally in total defense and third in scoring defense. Rutgers has allowed only seven points per game this season.
“We’re not really looking at him specifically, just everybody in general,” UNC sophomore wide receiver Jheranie Boyd said. “Rutgers plays a lot of man (defense), a little bit of zone (defense), so that’s gonna give us an opportunity to make plays in one-on-one situations.”
Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. contest will be Lefeged’s 29th career collegiate start. He and the Scarlet Knights’ defense will face a relatively hot passing game that ranks 11th nationally in passing offense.
But a high-octane offense doesn’t always equate to wins. North Carolina is the only team ranked in the top 40 in passing offense without a victory.
And Rutgers’ last line of defense will do what he can to keep it that way.
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