John Ross anticipated a final magic act on Saturday with the anxiousness of a thoroughbred jostling in the starting gate. Having already scored touchdowns on a pair of deep receptions and another on a 92-yard kickoff return before halftime, the redshirt junior was yearning for more against an opponent helpless to stop him.
“Deep for Washington,” public address announcer Eric Radovich informed the crowd as the Huskies set up for the second-half kickoff, “is John Ross.”
During a 48-13 pummeling that seemed a conclusion before the visitors achieved a first down, first-year Rutgers head coach Chris Ash had few chances to make meaningful strategic decisions. But Ross’ three touchdowns convinced Ash of the stupidity of kicking the ball anywhere the speedster.
And you’ve got to wonder how many other coaches will follow Ash’s cue, sacrificing field position in exchange for the assurance Ross won’t take it to the house on them.
As fellow Huskies receiver/returner Dante Pettis said afterward: “I would be surprised if anyone kicks to him the rest of the season.”
When asked about the revolting but real possibility he’ll be treated as college football’s version of the slugger who is intentionally walked with the bases empty, Ross responded with a smile.
“I hope not,” he said.
But even if his kick-return potential is mitigated by coaches who’ve learned to fear him, Ross understands there are worse fates in football than not getting the ball. Two years ago, the Los Angeles area native injured his right knee in a mid-September game against Illinois. He sat out the next week, then returned, contributing on both sides of the scrimmage line following the suspension of cornerback Marcus Peters.
Ross underwent surgery for two meniscus tears after the 2014 season, only to aggravate the repaired knee in spring practice. Additional surgery required him to sit out all of 2015.
“It took a year and a half of hard work, getting the knee back,” Jake Browning said of Ross, who caught two of the quarterback’s prettiest throws Saturday — one for 38 yards, the other for 50 — in stride for first-quarter touchdowns. “He’s very explosive and that’s great, but what was really cool was not just to throw the ball to him, but see him come into his own after missing all of last season.”
Ross established the 2016 opener as a target date “the day I tore my knee,” he said, referring to his smart phone with a 2016 calendar. “I had the Rutgers mascot on there, because I couldn’t wait.”
So determined was Ross to come back at full strength, he needed only a few days to see himself converting a kickoff to a touchdown — in his sleep.
“I had a dream I’d take the opening kick back,” he said. “I was just telling coach Pete about that.”
Coach Pete, of course, is Chris Petersen, who offered a tangible number on what it meant for Ross to be back in uniform.
“It meant,” said Petersen, “about 21-28 points.”
More important than what it meant for the Huskies is what it means when they face better competition in the Pac-12.
“John is as fast and explosive as they come, so that is a nice weapon to have,” said Petersen. “But we want to give the other guys a chance to develop because it can’t just be ‘The John Ross Show.’ People will figure out how to slow that down fast.
“It was really nice to come out of the gate and make some plays there, so people have to pay attention to that closely. We do have some other firepower, and that should help balance some things out.”
Pettis, the junior whose 68-yard touchdown return of a third-quarter punt gave the Huskies their first kickoff-punt scoring tandem in a game since Roc Alexander and Charles Frederick in 2001, personifies that firepower.
And yet Pettis understands the difference between between firepower and an atom-splitting explosion.
“Every time he touches the ball, I think he’s gonna score,” Pettis said of Ross. “At one point, he had like three touches and two touchdowns. My gosh, this guy’s ridiculous.”
Welcome to The John Ross Show. While it’s expected to run through autumn, audiences may have seen his last 92-yard kickoff return.
You don’t put the ball in this guy’s hands if there are other options. You just don’t.