The Rutgers Scarlet Knights were coming into this past weekend’s matchup against Penn State not having scored a touchdown against the Nittany Lions since Gary Nova rushed one in from 14 yards out in the first quarter of a rainy September night game in 2014. It was the first Big Ten contest that Rutgers ever played in-conference. Both teams stunk that year. The Scarlet Knights were simply worse than the Nittany Lions. Penn State eventually would win that football game 13-10 in a turnover filled game. Gary Nova, himself, threw five interceptions. It was an ugly game.
Since that touchdown, it’s been three years and almost two months, to the days, since Rutgers has found the endzone against Penn State. I was certain that trend would end this weekend. I was wrong. The Nittany Lion defense kept Rutgers out of the endzone all afternoon, including after an opening kickoff fumble that put the Scarlet Knights in excellent field position to open the game. They came away with just three. It was a defensive win for Penn State. I spoke extremely highly, with tempered expectations, of course, of Rutgers this year. They have been much improved, but were still no match for the Nittany Lions, who improved to 8-2 with the victory. I came away with four thoughts from this homecoming victory over Rutgers.
1. Penn State’s Pass Defense Was Stellar
I understand I have to take this comment with a grain of salt for multiple reasons. First and foremost, Rutgers has featured a run-heavy offense this season. That trend continued this weekend, as the Scarlet Knights’ rushing attack nearly doubled the passing game in terms of called plays, 39-20. So the unbalanced attack needs to be taken into consideration before we continue. In a game that saw Rutgers down big midway through the third quarter, the Scarlet Knights didn’t abandon the run for the sake of their offense. That being said, however, the Nittany Lion defense swarmed the football all afternoon long and didn’t allow Giovani Rescigno to get comfortable within the pocket to the throw the football. Rescigno finished the afternoon completing just 35 percent of his passes, going seven for 20 for 43 yards. In the games Rescigno has started this season, those 43 yards passing are the worst against any opponent. Also, take this into consideration: Rescigno completed two separate passes for 12 yards each, including once against a Penn State defensive unit comprised primarily of backups. Those two passes mean that, for the remainder of the contest, Rescigno was 5-18 for 19 yards. That’s utter dominance by the Penn State secondary, which draped itself over Rutgers’ receivers all day. The secondary had been exposed significantly over the last two weeks, allowing 728 yards through the air to J.T. Barrett and Brian Lewerke. While 773 passing yards over a three game stretch, an average of almost 256 yards per game, is not conducive to success, that number dropped significantly with the blanketing of Rutgers’ receivers and Giovanni Rescigno all afternoon. Before I tout the secondary as refocused, I’d like to see success in back-to-back weeks. Nebraska and Tanner Lee will be the next task.
2. Trace McSorley Became The All Time Touchdown Producer In PSU History
You all know my thoughts on Trace McSorley at this juncture. He has struggled mightily in properly reading the RPO this season. I made mention to a friend of mine who I was watching the game with that McSorley’s eyes never seem to be up while running that RPO. What I mean by that is it appears that McSorley is not effectively scanning the field before deciding to either keep the football or stick it in Saquon Barkley’s stomach. As things often go in the life of a writer, McSorley made me eat my words as he busted an RPO run off for 20 yards and a score. In the process, McSorley broke the Penn State record held by Daryl Clark for most touchdowns accounted for in a career. The rushing touchdown was his 16th as the Nittany Lions’ signal caller. He’s also added 51 touchdown passes in his career, including a 16-yard strike to tight end Mike Gesicki midway through the fourth quarter to score the fifth and final touchdown of the afternoon for Penn State. It amazes me that I continually bash McSorley for his play despite his continued success on the field. He now has accounted for 68 total touchdowns in his career, tied for 29th all-time in Big Ten history. He’s now with former Heisman trophy winner and Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, among others. Should McSorley continue the average of which he’s produced over the last two seasons, he could account for up to 11 more touchdowns this year. That number would put him alone in 14th place in Big Ten history, jumping the likes of Terrell Pryor and Ron Dayne. Despite my qualms about McSorley, he’s been statistically impressive, and is beginning to get into the hierarchy of Big Ten history.
3. Penn State Kept Its New Years’ Six Hope Alive
Despite playing lesser competition, the Nittany Lions found themselves in a predicament this past weekend. Often times, college football teams, filled with young men ages 18-23, crumble after being ranked highly for so long throughout the season before losing a game. This could have been a trap game for Penn State, but the team made the most of the situation presented on the field, throttling Rutgers 35-6. The 29 point victory gave the Nittany Lions their eighth victory of the season with two regular season games remaining. Should Penn State win out, which is a favorable outcome based on the final two opponents of the season, they’ll be 10-2, the same record they finished last year with. More importantly, they’d be 7-2 in the Big Ten and could still hold an outside shot at representing the East Division in the Big Ten title game should Ohio State lose one final time this season. It isn’t likely, but it’s feasible. Regardless of playing in the Big Ten Championship or not in 2017, the team would have a strong argument to play in one of the New Years’ Six bowl game, especially should a Big Ten team make the final four. The biggest obstacle facing Penn State in terms of taking a New Years’ Day game will be UCF, who would get the automatic qualifier of non-AQ team based on their record. Currently, the Knights are undefeated, one of the final four team remaining without a loss, and could snag a better bowl game than their talent may indicate. But should they continue to succeed, especially if they finish 13-0 with an AAC title, there’s no way Penn State could jump them in getting a better bowl. However, Penn State could still feasibly get into these six games. As of right now, my best guess is that the Nittany Lions would pack their bags and head to Tampa, Florida to play in the Outback Bowl. While it wouldn’t be the bowl that fans had hoped for four weeks ago, the playoff aspirations have all but faded, and this bowl game would pitch the Nittany Lions against a solid team, either from a power five conference or the aforementioned UCF.
4. When Will Penn State Utitlize Juwan Johnson Consistently?
Juwan Johnson had himself a solid day this weekend, catching five passes for 78 yards. But the offensive production doesn’t come consistently for Johnson, who has had as many games with 60 or more yards as he has had 30 or less yard. Johnson is a pure route runner who has the body (6’4″, 226 pounds) to cause serious concerns for opposing secondaries, which are almost always undersized. Yet, Johnson is often playing second or third fiddle in the offense. He needs to be utilized far more often than he has been over the course of the season. To me, Johnson appears to be primed to be a receiver who will be more effective in the NFL than he ever will be in college. Despite stronger, faster more physical corners waiting for him at the next level, Johnson would be an ideal candidate to run routes out of the slot from 20 to 20, only to be turned into an outside receiver when his offense gets into the red zone. A good comparison for me, not just because of the size, but because of a comparable skill set, is Plaxico Burress. Burress’ playing size was 6’5″ and 232 pounds, just a bit larger than Johnson in both aspects. Burress was utilized far more at Michigan State in his two collegiate seasons than Johnson has been used at Penn State, but the two are comparable. We’re going to look back at the college career of Juwan Johnson ten years from now and wonder what could have been as he succeeds in the NFL.
Mandatory Credit: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports