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Rutgers Football Game #11 Preview v #16 Penn State

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Nittany Lions look to improve Bowl destination on RU’s Senior Day.

NCAA Football: Rutgers at Penn State
RU bottled up Barkley in 2017, but McSorley was too much.
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

How To Watch, Stream & Listen

Penn State (7-3; 4-3) At Rutgers (1-9; 0-7)

Where: Highpoint.com Stadium, Piscataway, NJ

Kick-off: Saturday, November 17th at 12:01 p.m. EST

Weather: 44 degrees, mostly sunny with a 1% chance of rain, 7 mph winds

TV: BTN . Out-of-market channel finder.

Stream: BTN2go

Radio: Rutgers IMG Sports Network with Chris Carlin, Ray Lucas, and Anthony Fucilli - WCTC 1450-AM, WOR 710-AM, WENJ 97.3-FM, WNJE 920-AM, XM 210, Sirius 137. (WRSU 88.7-FM: Jake Ostrove, Sam Marsdale, and Corey Jason)

Current Spread: Penn State -28

Against The Spread: Rutgers 5-5; Penn State 6-4

Series History: Penn State leads the all-time series 26-2.

SB Nation PSU site: Black Shoe Diaries

Penn State Statistical Leaders

Passing: Trace McSorley - 147 for 270 pass attempts, 54.4%, 1872 yards, 13 TD, 5 INT. Tommy Stevens - 6 for 9 pass attempts, 66.6%, 85 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. Sean Clifford - 5 for 5 pass attempts, 100%, 195 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT.

Rushing: Miles Sanders - 1007 yards on 166 attempts, 6.1 ypc, 9 TD; Trace McSorley - 620 yards on 133 attempts, 4.7 ypc, 9 TD; Ricky Slade - 156 yards on 28 attempts, 5.6 ypc, 4 TD; Mark Allen - 98 yards on 23 attempts, 4.3 ypc, 2 TD;

Receiving: KJ Hamler - 34 catches for 553 yards, 16.3 ypc, 5 TD; Juwon Johnson - 21 catches for 293 yards, 14.0 ypc, 1 TD; Pat Freiermuth - 19 catches for 256 yards, 13.5 ypc, 4 TD; DeAndre Thompkins - 17 catches for 214 yards, 12.6 ypc, 2 TD;

Defense: Micah Parsons - 58 tackles, 1.0 for a loss, 0.5 sacks, 0 forced fumbles, 0 fumble recoveries; Jan Johnson - 56 tackles, 1.5 for a loss, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT, 0 forced fumbles, 0 recovered fumbles, 1 pass defended; Nick Scott - 52 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 3 INT, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery.

Kicking: Jake Pinegar - 43 for 45 PAT’s, 12 for 18 FG attempts, Long of 49 yards

Penn State Statistical Comparison Versus Rutgers

S&P+ Advanced Stats Profiles: Penn State I Rutgers

What To Watch For

Sitkowski / McNulty watch

The RU offense is by far the most important key to this game, even more than if Rutgers has any energy on senior day. Penn State’s defense does not have one player that jumps out on the stat sheet because they are pretty balanced. For example, four players have at least 4.5 sacks, including two of them with ten plus tackles for loss, Yetur Gross-Matos (15.5) and Shareef Miller (10.5). Five players have six or more official pass breakups, including Cameron Brown with six and he also has five sacks.

So what does Rutgers do on offense? The Scarlet Knights don’t have the horses to simply run the ball against any team in the country, so some semblance of a passing game is absolutely needed. Last week the weapon of choice was the screen game, but that flopped for a number of reasons including drops. Receiver seems like the easiest position on the football field to find talent and yet Rutgers simply can’t field a cohesive offense because they can’t complete the simplest passes. The only place left to go for McNulty is try to throw more to tight ends which is a tough spot for a quarterback that has been killed on social media for hanging his pass catchers out to dry. Tight ends operate in a lot of traffic and the lack of a running attack to force defenders to crash down means they will have to absorb a lot of contact. Misdirection, jet sweeps, and motions may be employed to help TEs shield defenders on at least one side of their body.

Pacheco watch

This category as a standalone is probably long overdue. Raheem Blackshear can break a tackle or two, but Pacheco is the only offensive Rutgers player who can run through tackles effortlessly at times. Isaih has the ability to gain yards even when the blocking lets him down as long as it’s not a jailbreak into the backfield. Particularly when second or third stringers are in, he simply powers right through them, dragging players for extra yardage. And if the 44 yard TD against Northwestern was not enough evidence, Pacheco outraced and outmanuevered what is considered by some the fastest defense in the country for an 80 yard TD run against Michigan. I for one did not think he was that fast.

McNulty mentioned during his Monday press conference how Rutgers’s coaching staff went back and forth about who should be the wildcat QB vs running back. If Rutgers is really playing to win, Isaih who was a QB in high school could get extra direct snaps as long as Rutgers remains close. The underrated component as outsiders have said time and time again is that the team simply plays with more energy and fight when Pacheco is in there. That is impossible to quantify except for maybe PFF, but the eye test says so. There may be no freshman running back in recent memory as good as Todd Gurley, but Pacheco is in that mold and has the same effect on his teammates.

Chris Ash, D.C.

Chris Ash and co. face probably (Patterson and Thorson being the only other candidates) the best quarterback they have seen all season in Trace McSorley. McSorley single-handedly shredded the RU D last year in the second half in Happy Valley, but comes into this game pretty banged up. He also has a pretty good ball toter in Miles Sanders (great name btw) who has run for over 1,000 yards already this year.

Penn State is going to try and impose their will (it’s James Franklin coaching remember). Like Michigan did last week, PSU will go hat on hat and blow RU off the ball, then try to get out of Dodge without too much damage. So for Rutgers to keep things close, they need the D line to hold ground, linebackers to play like wild men, and DBs to continue to play isolated man coverage on the perimeter. Yes Michigan created some long plays, but those usually came when RU could not get any semblance of a pass rush and should have had coverage sacks. If Rutgers can compete defensively like they did early in each of the last two matchups with the Nittany Lions, PSU will have decisions to make.

Options

These previews have gotten away from a lot of Xs and Os because many times this season, that has not mattered. For example, Michigan does employ some QB option runs but at no time last week did Shea Patterson elect to keep it himself. Penn State is more reliant on these type pf plays, but may instruct McSorley to do the same thing, particularly because he is nursing a knee injury. Instead, PSU will more likely go with run, pass options (currently a buzzword) a concept that has been around a long time however. And if nothing develops quickly, Trace may be content to just throw it away.

McSorley is a gamer who is very tough and doesn’t like to waste downs. Even when injured he prefers scrambling to checking down to his back as RB Miles Sanders has just 18 receptions on the season, even though he has rushed for over 1,000 yards. Number two receiver Juwon Johnson is questionable and third running back Mark Allen is out so the depth at the skill positions for PSU is thinner than they would like.

Of course it’s hard to get injured if you are never touched hence why McSorley may avoid that unless the game is close late.

Special Teams

For any upset to happen at any level of football, special teams is a crucial part of the elixir. Penn State has a freshman kicker in Jake Pinegar that has hit only 12 of 18 field goals, but that number is skewed by a five for ten mark from 40-49 yards out. The fact that they have called on him for so many long kicks has paid off with two 49 yard conversions already this year including one in less than favorable conditions last week. In the return game, the Nittany Lions have solid return men in KJ Hamler and Johnathan Thomas so RU’s kickers and cover teams have their work cut out.

After Coach Khaki praised the Rutgers cover teams last week, it seemed pretty obvious that Michigan focused on execution in the return game to prepare. Rutgers was not as effective as they had been recently so there may be more work needed to be put in that area especially as late season weather makes kicking more difficult. Despite all this Adam Korsak has continued to be awesome. He probably won’t be all Big Ten this year, but still has been the best player on the Scarlet Knights regardless of position.

Final Thoughts

The largest margin of victory ever in this series was just two years ago, when an inspired Rutgers defense held Penn State to just a 9-0 halftime edge. That ballooned to a 39-0 final when Rutgers could do absolutely nothing on offense. In fact that offensive performance felt even more anemic than the historic loss to Michigan in the first half. So even though this is not a rivalry, these two teams should continue to develop animosity toward one another and eventually become a heated battle each year.

We were warned about this gauntlet of a schedule and I thought people were too optimistic early on. That being said, Rutgers faced so many teams that were dealing with issues of their own and could not capitalize. The schedule likely won’t be easier than this year anytime soon so RU has a long way to go.

Right now, this is yet another game where Rutgers benefits by no expectations coming in and has an opportunity to make progress. Improvement was not really evident last week compared to the previous two games, so it’s crucial the needle continues to move forward rather than regress to levels earlier this year.