Touchdown of Takeaways: Defense shines again

Story posted September 14, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Matt Lawrence

For the first time ever, Penn State and Rutgers met Saturday night in Piscataway as members of the Big Ten conference. For 57 minutes, the Scarlet Knights were in control and on their way to one of the biggest wins in its program’s history.

But a Bill Belton touchdown with just over a minute to play, gave Penn State (3-0, 1-0 B1G) a 13-10 win over Rutgers (2-1, 0-1 B1G) silencing a record crowd at High Point Solutions Stadium.

As we do every Monday, let’s look back at the good, the bad and the ugly from a memorable weekend in New Jersey.

1) Once again, it was the Penn State defense that showed up in a big way Saturday night. After falling behind 10-0, the Nittany Lions held the Rutgers offense scoreless in the second half and picked off senior quarterback Gary Nova five times.

Every time Penn State needed a stop, they found it. With less than five minutes to play, Rutgers pushed the ball into Penn State territory; a first down would have all but sealed a victory. But Nova misfired on a third and six, giving the ball back to Christian Hackenberg and the offense leading to the game-winning drive.

2) It continues to be a learning process across the offensive line. Hackenberg was sacked four times, forced out of the pocket numerous other times and the Nittany Lions were again stymied in the running game.

The struggles up front are well documented and they don’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Miles Dieffenbach, who is currently out with a torn ACL, was seen jogging around Saturday night and there’s optimism that he could possibly be back in a limited capacity in time for Michigan. The senior’s presence has been greatly missed and his leadership could be beneficial for a line with four new starters.

3) Remember all spring when James Franklin was adamant about the need for the tight ends to block? Notice how many times Kyle Carter, Jesse James or Mike Gesicki remain in tight on pass plays; or used as a lead blocker in the backfield on run plays.

With a struggling offensive line, defenses have been teeing off on Hackenberg, sending blitzes and forcing him to get rid of the ball quickly. To counter that, offensive coordinator John Donovan has been using tight ends as additional blockers to give Hackenberg and the passing game more time.

On a similar note, that same rational explains why Akeel Lynch continues to see sparse action. Both Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak are better pass blockers than Lynch and the running back in this offense needs to be able to pick up a blitz.

4) The growth and development of Anthony Zettel at the defensive tackle position will be fun to watch. Zettel had another impressive game recording four tackles, three for a loss, and a sack.

On the season, seven of his 13 tackles have come behind the line of scrimmage. That’s a remarkable stat for a guy that just played his third game at a new position. Zettel may not have the size currently to leave for the NFL after this year, but he is slowly becoming one of the premiere interior linemen in the conference.

5) One final point here regarding the game itself, it’s scary to think where this Penn State offense would be without Christian Hackenberg. Saturday night was Hackenberg’s fourth career game-winning drive, engineered in less than two minutes, on the road against a rival playing in their first Big Ten game.

On that final drive, Hackenberg may have saved the game by scrambling, breaking two tackles and getting rid of the football while in the grasp of a defender in order to stop the clock. After what appeared to be a go-ahead score to Jesse James was called back on a holding penalty, Penn State faced a 3rd and 13 from the 30.

Hackenberg dropped in a beautiful pass to Geno Lewis down the left sideline in between two Rutgers’ defenders. Those are the type of big-time throws that have NFL scouts drooling over the sophomore’s potential.

6) The other storyline Saturday night surrounded the budding rivalry brewing between these bordering schools. Having spent the weekend in Piscataway, I can tell you that there is a genuine disdain felt towards Penn State and its fan base.

The Nittany Lions have now won 23 of the 25 games played between the two teams. Franklin has been seeing a ton of success recruiting in the state of New Jersey, which directly affects Rutgers more so than any other program.

That momentum continued when Union City, NJ linebacker Daiquan Kelly committed to Franklin and Penn State Sunday afternoon. Kelly was a Syracuse commit and current teammates with future Nittany Lion Stephen Gonzalez. Kelly was in attendance Saturday night as a Rutgers visitor.

7) With all that said, having Rutgers in the Big Ten will prove to be a positive for Penn State and its fans. It’s no secret that since becoming the 11th member of the Big Ten in 1991, Penn State has lacked the presence of a true rival.

Rutgers allows for Nittany Lion fans living in the New York City market a viable road game to attend every other year. The Rutgers fan base is not shy about their overall feelings towards the Penn State program, evident in the sell out, program-record 53,774 in attendance.

Nearly all of the Penn State fans that attended the game, myself included, were treated with nothing but respect and class. Were there a few that caused some issues? Of course—there are at any school.

But this matchup, along with the addition of Maryland to the south, has the chance to become a fun and entertaining annual game. Some say you need both teams to win in order to have a rivalry. But, when you share recruiting territory, have split families that attended both schools and genuinely dislike each other, it’s hard to imagine a rivalry not buiiding.

(Photo credit: AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Abby Drey)

Matt Lawrence is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email