Gauntlet. It’s a word that, had you been following along with my Penn State pieces over the last three weeks, you’ve seen me articulate quite frequently. But in the case of the 15 day stretch that Penn state was staring headlong at midway through October, the word gauntlet was very much justifiable. The team was set to take on Michigan at home before heading on the road to battle Ohio State and Michigan State over a three weekend stretch. It was set to be the most grueling part of Penn State’s schedule, one that, should Penn State come out of unscathed, would vault the Nittany Lions into the ranks of the near locks for the College Football Playoff. They would have been 9-0, and more importantly 6-0 in Big Ten play, with Rutgers, Nebraska and Maryland remaining in the regular season.
As we know, however, Penn State wasn’t up for the task, dropping two out of three in that aforementioned sequence, and falling to 7-2. The Nittany Lions also fell from the second ranked team in the nation to 14th, effectively all but eliminated from playoff contention.
The good news for Penn State is that the most intense part of the schedule is behind it, and the team can look to regain momentum, finishing the season strong. The weekend’s home matchup will be the first of three teams on the downward slope of the climb up Mount Everest. If Michigan was the journey to the summit, Ohio State was the peak, and Michigan State simply elongated that peak. Now, Penn State can slide back down the other side of the mountain. But much like the perils that are apparent when scaling a mountain, getting back down is just as difficult. The games themselves won’t be as difficult in terms of talent, but the let down that Penn State has suffered in consecutive weeks could be an leveling factor.
Rutgers will come into this weekend’s contest at 4-5, including wins in three of its last four games. This isn’t the same kick under the rug, walk over Rutgers team that we’ve seen in past seasons. Yes, it’s understood that Rutgers hasn’t scored a touchdown against Penn state in over three years, and yes, Penn State leads the all-time series 25-2, but 2017’s rendition won’t be a walk in the park.
The Scarlet Knights come off a seven point victory over Maryland last weekend. The one caveat to Rutger’s improvement this season is that they’ve won just once on the road in 2017, defeating the lowly Illinois Fighting Illini. But the self-proclaimed “birthplace of football” will come into Happy Valley looking to use their momentum, mirrored with Penn State’s backwards movement, to their advantage.
The Scarlet Knights have featured two quarterbacks this year. To open the season, to my surprise, Head Coach Chris Ash decided to go with Senior Kyle Bolin over 2016 starter and returner Giovanni Rescigno. Bolin started the first five games of the season, going 1-4 over that stretch. His playing time was limited a week after losing to Ohio State 56-0, and by the following week, Bolin had been usurped as the starting quarterback. In his five plus games this season, Bolin was 73-133, for 711 yards. He threw three touchdowns to six interceptions. His ineffectiveness led to the removed incumbent Rescigno regaining control of the offense. Since stepping in as starter, Rescigno has led the Scarlet Knights to that three out of four scenario mentioned earlier. To this point, the junior is 32 of 63 for 407 yards and two touchdowns. He’s also rushed for a touchdown this season. Neither quarterback will light the world on fire, and the disparity between pass and run in the Rutgers offense is evident. The team has thrown the ball just 212 times this season.
In comparison, the Scarlet Knights have run the ball 352 times, good for 62.4 percent of their offensive snaps in 2017. The rushing attack is led by Miami graduate transfer Gus Edwards. Edwards has carried the football 140 times this year, nearly triple that of his final season with the Hurricanes, for 630 yards and four scores. Edwards has brought life to a rushing attack that lacked explosiveness a season ago. Edwards has found pay dirt six times as well this season, two fewer than all running backs scored combined in 2016. Backing up Edwards has primarily been last season’s leading rusher, Robert Martin. Martin has carried the ball 79 times for 358 yards and three touchdowns. Last year, the Harisburg native found the endzone just twice in the starting role. Last year’s backup, Justin Goodwin, who was more of a 1A to Martin, has graduated and is no longer with the team. Last season, the Scarlett Knights scored just eight rushing touchdowns. This year, the offense has simplified things with success, having found the endzone on the ground 19 times already with seven different players, including third string quarterback Freshman Jonathan Lewis, who scored four times on the ground against Morgan State.
When the offense is limited to throwing the football 212 times over nine games, the receiving core won’t play a massive role in the offense. This year’s leading receiver for the Scarlet Knights has been Jerome Washington, who’s caught just 24 balls for 253 yards and one score. Behind him, it’s a cluster of nine receivers who have anywhere from five to 16 receptions this season. They’ve all combined for just six touchdown receptions as well.
As we’ve seen so often in college football, graduation and turnover can be a cruel mistress, and Rutgers was bit by that very fate this season. Last year’s second leading receiver, Andre Patton, has graduated and now plays for the Los Angeles Chargers practice squad after being signed as an undrafted free agent. But even more bizarre than Patton’s graduation is the loss of 2016 leading receiver Jawuan Harris. Last year, Harris caught 39 passes for 481 and three touchdowns. He didn’t graduate. He didn’t transfer. Instead, Head Coach Chris Ash aksed his top receiver to move to another position, completely changing sides of the field, to play safety in 2017. Harris has done so, recording 32 tackles, two interceptions and a forced fumble. While Harris has had success on the defensive side of the ball, it certainly seems strange to ask your leading receiver to no longer catch passes but to defend them.
There won’t be an explosive defense on the opposite side of Trace McSorley and company for the first time in three weeks when Rutgers and Penn State meet up. Rutgers is better than just 16 teams in terms of yards allowed per play, ranking 111th in the nation at 6.85 yards per play. They’ve allowed 5544 yards in total, including 3311 yards through the air, good only for 118th in the country. Combine that with the 2233 yards they’ve allowed in the ground, over five yards per carry, and the Penn State offense could get clicking early in this one and never look back. They’ve also allowed 55 touchdowns this season. Quite possibly the one thing that Rutgers is least efficient at is being efficient on defense. They struggle to get off the field come third down, as the team has allowed over 44 percent of opposing third downs to result in a fresh set of downs. That’s the 107th best in the country. They don’t get to the quarterback all that well, either. The defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks just 14 times in nine games, resulting in an average of 1.17 sacks per game. The last three teams the Nittany Lions have faced averaged 2.92(Ohio State), 2.64(Michigan State) and 2.46(Michigan).
Rutgers does swarm to the football well, especially through the air The Scarlet Knights defense has picked off 13 passes this season and have added three forced fumbles.
Rutgers will come into Beaver Stadium and try to control the clock. It’s their most accessible way to victory. The running game is good and could keep Penn State moving laterally all day. Rescigno, however, gets easily rattled under pressure, and if there’s one thing Penn State is good at, it’s getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Rutgers will score an offensive touchdown in this one, so that streak will almost certainly end. But at the end of the day, Penn State is a superior, angry football team who will come out victorious.
Final Prediction: Penn State 44 Rutgers 17
Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports