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Penn State Nittany Lions at Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Preview, Predictions & Prognostications

When: Sat. Nov. 19, 2016; 8 pm ET
Where: Piscataway, NJ;  High Point Solutions Stadium (52,454)
TV: BTN
All-Time Series: Penn State leads 24-2
Last Meeting: Penn State 28-3 win, in 2015
Line: Penn State (-28)

It’s not that hard to recall this being a competitive prime time showdown game to introduce Rutgers to the Big Ten in week 3 of the 2014 season. That game finished 13-10 in favor of James Franklin’s team, but these two programs could not be in more distinctive places just two years later in the first game back in New Jersey.

Rutgers is winless in conference play and is the first Power 5 conference team since Baylor in 2008 to be shut out at least three times in a season, while Penn State is in position to go to its first Big Ten Championship with two wins and 1 more Michigan loss. If nothing else, Penn State is playing to stay in position for a New Year’s Six major bowl game, the first since a Rose Bowl appearance in the 2008 season. Thus, while the game will be treated as important by both teams, the Nittany Lions have a lot more pressure to perform well in this game where they are favored by a ton on paper.

Chris Ash has not had a lot to smile about in his first season at the helm of Rutgers, but the wheels had not really fallen off until the 49-0 ambush by previously-winless (in conference play) Michigan State last week. It will be interesting to see if the Scarlet Knights can dust themselves off and come up with a huge effort to make this game close on Senior Day. It’s all about building blocks for the future, as Rutgers is in quite a tough division with a long road to travel to get back to competitive.

1 Burning Question: Will the Home Field Advantage in a Night Game make a Difference?

This is actually a similar question I asked about Michigan-Iowa last week, but that had more to do with Michigan being totally untested so far (and just look what happened). Penn State plays incredibly well at home and has for many years, with 2016 being no different. However, on the road PSU has gone 2-2, with the wins coming in struggles for over a half against Purdue and in a narrow come-from-behind win at Indiana. These are not performances which inspire confidence, especially considering the competition level has not been great in those wins.

Meanwhile, Rutgers has actually played many more close games than not when at High Point Solutions Stadium. Both of Rutgers’s wins have come at home, and conference games against Iowa, Illinois and Indiana there have been close. Thus, maybe this is just the platform Rutgers needs to knock off a team that may be playing tight now that so much is on the line beyond what Penn State has experienced for a decade.

Sure, the statistics and other factors below will nearly all favor the Nittany Lions. That’s to be expected when one team is a national title contender and the other is the worst in the conference. But maybe this is one of those inexplicable shockers waiting to happen in November…it’s certainly more likely in this setting than if this game were in Happy Valley.

Also, let’s all hope Rutgers does something fun again like… #StripeTheBirthplace.

2 Key Stats:

— 31.9% and 28.5%.  That’s the third down conversion percentage for Rutgers and Penn State, respectively (12th and 13th in B1G).  Most of the statistics favor Penn State in this game, but one where both teams are equally struggling is picking up third downs and maintaining long drives. If both teams struggle to pick up first downs in this game, then it could become a battle of field position and special teams. That still favors Penn State, but it’s one way Rutgers can exploit a potential weakness of the Lions. Of course, Rutgers has to stop PSU on first and second down, which brings us to our second key stat of the week.

— 251.3. That’s the rushing defense yards per game surrendered by Rutgers (14th in B1G).  Running back Saquon Barkley is a top contender for Big Ten player of the year, and he has to be excited with the opportunity to continue his recent string of success against the worst rushing defense in the conference. Rutgers, quite simply, has not been able to fill the gaps in the running game when an opposing offensive line plays well. The Nittany Lions are better up front than they have been in a long time, which bodes poorly for Rutgers as the Scarlet Knights try to figure out how to slow down Barkley and get the PSU offense off the field quickly.

3 Key Players:

Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB: Who else would you start the key players with than perhaps the one weapon Rutgers is not built to stop? Unlike some Big Ten programs, Barkley is a one-man show in the running game, and as such, he leads the Big Ten with a 111.3 yard per game average. His 13 touchdowns are second only to Rodney Smith out at Minnesota, so look for him to break off a couple big runs and score a couple of touchdowns in this prime time spotlight game (maybe much like he did when it counted against Minnesota earlier this season).

Trevor Morris, Rutgers LB: Despite there not being much to brag about on a defense that has been rolled by many opponents this season, Morris has stepped up and led this defense with 84 tackles through 10 games. If the Knights are to have any chance of stopping the Nittany Lions, and Barkley in particular, Morris needs to have a great game reading the plays before and as they happen (he and FS Kiy Hester will both be relied on in the middle of this defense). In a season without many bright points, Morris is a potential bright spot for the future as he is only a sophomore. He’s also from Malvern, Pennsylvania, so this is a big game for him playing against some old friends, and that may raise his level of play even more on Saturday.

Giovanni Rescigno, Rutgers QB: As the season spiraled a bit out of control, Chris Ash decided to give the redshirt sophomore Rescigno a chance at quarterback. Since taking over for Chris Laviano, the sophomore has struggled at times, throwing 5 touchdowns and 5 interceptions to go with a 52% completion rate. That’s actually better than experienced QB Chris Laviano was doing, so maybe this is a step in the right direction as well as for building the future under coach Chris Ash. As long as PSU can keep top target WR Jawuan Harris contained, Rescigno could have a long day and be the difference in a negative way in this one.

 4 Staff Predictions:

Andy: Penn State 41-0
Dave: Penn State 31-7
Phil H.: Penn State 34-14
Philip R.: Penn State 42-10
Zach: Penn State 45-13

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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