Game Preview: Penn State vs. Rutgers
As Michigan won’t be taking the field this week due to COVID-19 precautions, the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights will battle it out in Piscataway for last place in the Big Ten East.
Penn State sits at 1-5, currently last in the Big Ten East but is coming off of a much needed victory versus the Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor. Rutgers (2-4) is also coming off of its first victory since Week 1, edging the Purdue Boilermakers by a touchdown.
Despite the egregious 1-5 record this season, Penn State is still a perennial powerhouse in the Big Ten, and if there’s any team that should acknowledge and accept that, it’s Rutgers.
The Nittany Lions have won their last 13 games against Rutgers and hold a 28-2 series advantage over the Scarlet Knights all-time.
Even in an uncharacteristically disappointing year for Penn State, Rutgers will be seeking to end the 32-year drought and claim victory over the Nittany Lions once again. This isn’t going to be the easy, wide-open layup that the Nittany Lions are used to getting with the Scarlet Knights.
Can Penn State avoid any more mayhem this season, build off of its success in the win over Michigan and keep the winning streak alive?
Let’s take a look at some of the key matchups and keys to the game for each team and find out.
Following an 0-5 start for the first time in program history, Penn State found its footing last week against Michigan. The Nittany Lions played all four quarters as a team, didn’t turn the ball over and as a result secured its first tally in the win column of the season.
A solid argument could be made that both the offense and the defense had their best performances of the season against the Wolverines. If the Nittany Lions are able to replicate that this week on both sides of the ball, they could handle the Scarlet Knights fairly easily.
However, to say it was a flawless performance would be too generous. The play calling in the red zone still remained just as questionable as it has been all season.
Penn State is ranked No. 123 out of 126 teams in the FBS in red zone efficiency, converting only 63 percent of their trips. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, Rutgers may be the team to face to begin to find some traction inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. The Scarlet Knights rank No. 115 in the country in the red zone, allowing opponents to score on almost 95 percent of their trips.
But of course, the Nittany Lions must reach the red zone first, which is going to require a balanced offensive attack that starts with establishing the ground game. The Scarlet Knights run defense has proved to be susceptible, as it yields 170 yards per game to opponents on the ground.
Not to mention, they’ve allowed a 100-yard rusher in three straight games. Freshman running back Keyvone Lee is coming off of career highs of 22 carries for 134 yards and has scored a touchdown in three straight games. Devyn Ford will be returning to the team this week also.
Additionally, the Scarlet Knights passing defense is allowing 260 yards per game, so this could be the ideal opponent for quarterback Sean Clifford and the offense to keep the positive momentum going.
As those previous statistics indicate, Rutgers’ defense is not its strength.
Rutgers has been one of the most improved teams in the Big Ten this year, and it starts with the offense. The unit is averaging 388 yards per game and has visibly taken a step forward.
However, entering this Saturday’s contest with Penn State, Rutgers has a question mark at the quarterback position. The health of Noah Vedral will be something to monitor, because if he’s good to go, he’ll likely be the starter.
But if he isn’t, it may not be that much of a problem for the Scarlet Knights. The tandem of Art Sitkowski and Johnny Langan demonstrated that they could get the job done last week versus Purdue.
Sitkowski showed more in the air, completing 19-28 passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns. Langan contributed to the aerial attack as well, only throwing three passes but connecting on all of them for a total of 84 yards and one touchdown. But Langan did most of his damage on the ground, carrying the ball 21 times for 95 yards and finishing as Rutgers’ leading rusher.
Regardless of whoever is under center for the Scarlet Knights, they’ll have two explosive, dynamic weapons on the outside at their disposal in Bo Melton and Shameen Jones. Facing a Nittany Lions defense that has been receptive to big plays, this could be something that the Scarlet Knights offense looks to exploit.
Rutgers' offense could present a lot of challenges for the Nittany Lions’ defense if they’re not prepared for anything and everything. If Rutgers is able to produce some big, chunk plays with the defense making just enough stops, the Nittany Lions could find themselves in some trouble.
Head coach Greg Schiano has the Scarlet Knights as a watchable football team for the first time in a while, and quite frankly it’s a pretty entertaining one. Rutgers could very easily be 4-2 right now, when coming into the season the Scarlet Knights had lost 17 straight games in the Big Ten. Schiano has changed the culture of Rutgers football and has the program trending upwards.
James Franklin and the Nittany Lions, on the other hand, are plummeting hard in the other direction. With the unusual offseason and multiple coaching changes, a plethora of detrimental injuries and of course the op-out of star linebacker Micah Parsons, not much has gone the Nittany Lions’ way.
Over the first few games of the season, how the Nittany Lions have played has been a reflection of how they’ve dealt with those difficulties. In short - not great. However, even with all of the hurdles and injuries, Penn State is still a uber-talented football team that will be riding the wave of momentum for the first time this season after last week’s win.
It was vital the Nittany Lions got that first win to get their mojo back and return to the winning ways. Rutgers will keep it close, but Penn State will secure its second victory in a row and number 14 against the Scarlet Knights.
Prediction: Penn State 30, Rutgers 20
Zach Donaldson is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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