Game Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions at Rutgers Scarlet Knights

By Nick Polak on December 4, 2020 at 9:30 am
Purdue safety Jalen Graham (6) dives for Rutgers running back Isaih Pacheco (1) as Pacheco runs out of bounds during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020 at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette.
© Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier
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Six games into the season, the Nittany Lions finally have a shot at a winning streak in 2020. It's been tough sledding to get to this point, but James Franklin's squad finally broke through in Ann Arbor a week ago and got itself into the win column. Now, if they want to continue their winning ways, they'll have to do so against a Rutgers team that still has its struggles but is playing as hard as anyone in the conference.

  Penn State Rutgers
2020 Record 1-5 2-4
Head Coaches James Franklin (81-43, 57-28 with Penn State) Greg Schiano (70-71 in the NCAA, all with Rutgers)
Kickoff 12:00 PM EDT 
Television FS1
Stream Watch Fox Sports
spread Penn State -11.5

These aren't the Chris Ash Scarlet Knights

For years under Chris Ash, Rutgers was lifeless. They were good for a big play here and there, and were solid enough defensively, but it was rare that the Scarlet Knights looked like they were playing for something under their former head coach. That is not the case with Greg Schiano.

The most successful coach in school history returned to Piscataway this offseason and has the fan base reliving the glory days of the 2006-2010. During that stretch stretch his teams won eight games or more five times in six seasons. This isn't as talented of a roster as those teams, but Schiano already has his team playing as those teams did. They fly to the ball, they look eager to make plays, and they just look like they have fun. The talent isn't on par with the better teams in the conference, but the effort absolutely is.

This is no longer the directionless ghost ship that it was under Ash. This is a Greg Schiano team, through and through.

The Rutgers Offense is...fun?

At the time, it was pretty shocking to see Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson leave the Cowboys to join Schiano's staff. At the very least, it was a lateral move, and that's being nice. After all, Gleeson was a name that many Penn State fans would have liked to have seen in Happy Valley.

But six games into his tenure in Piscataway, Gleeson not only seems to be improving his stock as a coach, but he's turning a perennially boring offense into an exciting unit to watch. I'm not saying that Rutgers is going to lead the NCAA in points per game anytime soon, but they are no longer a milquetoast group that's just hoping for a missed tackle or two.

Noah Vedral has his limitations, but Gleeson tailored an offense that allowed him to find success. That success almost had him leading the team to an overtime win over Michigan. Then, when Vedral had to miss the Purdue game a week ago, Art Sitkowski (he of the 2018 line of 3/7 passing for 18 yards and 2 interceptions against Penn State that season) stepped in and led his team to a 37-30 win over the Boilermakers.

Combine his success with his quarterbacks with the ever-exciting Isah Pacheco at running back, and Bo Melton at receiver, and you have enough to compete. Gleeson has worked wonders with this group.

Penn State's Youngsters are Finding Their Way

One of the big themes of the season for Penn State has been getting contributions from its underclassmen. Against Michigan, fans saw Parker Washington become the apple of Sean Clifford's eye, grabbing nine passes for 93 yards and showcasing some impressive running after the catch. Not to be outdone, Keyvone Lee rumbled for 134 yards on 22 carries and one touchdown, thanks to some impressive vision and power en route to winning Freshman of the Week.

Penn State needs to continue to find ways to get its young players involved in order to prepare for 2021, but also because they are becoming key cogs in the 2020 version of the team, as well. Guys like KeAndre Lambert-Smith, Theo Johnson, Lance Dixon, and Daequan Hardy have shown flashes of what they can do already, perhaps this can be the week they start to turn those flashes into consistent production.

Go Streaking If...

  • Penn State is able to once again stay away from turnovers. For the first time in 2020, the Lions didn't turn the ball over against Michigan. And wouldn't you know it, that fact allowed them to not throw away drives and led to a win. Kirk Ciarrocca's offense has been one of the best in the conference when it comes to moving down the field, but the turnovers have been debilitating. If they can have another clean performance, they should win this game.
  • The red zone woes improve. Along with the turnovers, Penn State's inability to get the ball into the end zone inside of 20 yards has been the biggest issue. Perhaps Keyvone Lee's improved confidence along with a finally-successful version of what the Will Levis package is supposed to look like is what the offense needs.
  • Another strong defensive start. The Penn State defense finally did its part in the first half of a game against the Wolverines, holding Jim Harbaugh's squad to just seven points in the opening 30 minutes. The passing game just isn't the strength of this Nittany Lion team, as they are much better suited to play with the lead in 2020. Keeping Rutgers out of the end zone will be key.

Take a Sad Bath If...

  • The turnovers return. As we mentioned, this Rutgers defense plays hard, and if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile. They did just that against Michigan State in the opener when they turned over the Spartans seven times (with an eighth that was negated due to a penalty). Clifford needs to stay within himself and take care of the football.
  • The defense falls for Gleeson's tricks. Rutgers has found success with plays involving a bit of trickery this fall, even burning Ohio State a few times. Diagnosing the play has not been the strength of Brent Pry's defense, and it's hard to imagine the Scarlet Knights' offense just trying to run straight at Penn State all day. Expect to see a lot of misdirection in order to catch the inexperienced linebackers and struggling safeties looking the wrong way and spring big gains.
  • Penn State falls back into its unmotivated state from weeks three to five. The Nittany Lions looked like a team that had something to play for against Indiana and Ohio State, but after the 0-2 start, looked like a group that just wanted the season to end. Against Michigan, they looked reenergized and seemed to have new life breathed into them. If that team shows up, this is a win. But if they miss some tackles and passes early, things could spiral.

Prediction in gif form

This game can go one of two ways (obviously). Penn State could win, and would therefore elicit some joyful tears knowing that perhaps there are salvageable pieces of this season left. Penn State could also lose to Rutgers, which...

In the end, I do think Penn State comes out on top here. Despite its 1-5 record, it's been the better team in at least two of those five losses. Against Michigan, we saw what happens when a team finally stops turning the ball over, and it rather unsurprisingly led to a win. Of course, the Wolverines are having just as tough a season as Penn State, but with even more existential dread about the future. Beating them was a good first step, but this Nittany Lion team has far more to prove.

Rutgers has proven to be feisty and isn't going to roll over and die in front of any opponent. That being said, this is still not a talented football team. They have some standout performers in Pacheco and linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, but talent-wise, they don't stack up with Penn State. The Lions still need to execute in order to win, but with the confidence gained coming off of a win, I think they can do that.

Penn State 31, Rutgers 20

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