Rutgers football hosts Penn State on Saturday at noon at HighPoint.com Stadium in what is the last home game of the season. After a tumultuous 2018 campaign so far, the task is no easier with James Franklin and the Nittany Lions coming to town. With a 7-3 record and versatile quarterback Trace McSorley, this will yet another difficult matchup for the Scarlet Knights.
In an effort to find out more about this week’s opponent, I was fortunate to speak with Aaron Yorke, who is a senior writer for SB Nation’s Penn State site, Black Shoe Diaries. He answered questions on a number of topics so let’s kick things off.
AB: Penn State has had a solid season by most teams standards, but expectations were very high entering the season and they haven’t lived up to them. What has worked, what hasn’t and how do fans feel about James Franklin as head coach in the long term?
AY: Even with star quarterback Trace McSorley coming back, the offense hasn’t been able to light up the scoreboard in the same way it did in 2016 and 2017. The new starters haven’t stepped up and replaced the production of Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, and DaeSean Hamilton. Redshirt freshman wide receiver KJ Hamler has helped make up for those departures with his play-making ability, but a lack of other reliable targets has caused McSorley’s completion rate to plummet below 55 percent. The quarterback is also battling a knee injury that has limited him in the running game. Disappointing losses against Michigan State and Michigan have caused some fans to lose faith in James Franklin, but his job will be very secure as long as he wraps up the regular season with a couple of wins.
AB: The offense is scoring over 35 points per game this season, but is in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten for total offense overall. How have the departures of former OC Joe Moorhead and star running back Saquon Barkley affected the offense and how would you assess the unit heading into this game?
AY: Miles Sanders has been great at replicating Barkley’s production in the ground game. In fact, Sanders is averaging more yards per carry in 2018 than Barkley did in 2017, and Sanders still has games left against Rutgers and Maryland. The big issue for Penn State has been replacing what Barkley was able to do as a receiver. He was almost impossible for opponent to deal with last year, catching 54 passes out of the backfield for 632 yards. With fewer monster athletes like Barkley and Gesicki on the roster, new offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne hasn’t had the same tools to work with that Moorhead had. Rahne gets a lot of grief from fans due to the step backward taken by the offense this season, but the biggest difference from year to year has been the talent. Last weekend against Wisconsin, Rahne did a good job getting the ball in Sanders’s hands, so look for the lead back to get another large workload against Rutgers.
AB: Penn State is actually only 12th in the Big Ten on third down conversion rate at 34.8%, what have been the issues in this area?
AY: Penn State has had trouble on third down throughout Franklin’s tenure due to the high volatility of his offense. The Lions usually either score quickly or don’t score at all. That creates some excitement, but it also makes it difficult to close out games. As a result, most of Franklin’s losses over the past three seasons have come despite Penn State holding a late lead. It would be easier for the team to pick up short chunks of yardage if the running game was more consistent, but Franklin has never had an excellent offensive line in Happy Valley. The good news is that Sanders is coming off a great game and set to take on a Rutgers squad that is vulnerable against the run, so hopefully the Lions can pick up some third-down conversions on Saturday.
AB: The defense has been pretty strong against the pass this season and leads the Big Ten in sacks with 34. How often does Penn State bring pressure in the passing game and how do you expect them to attack the Rutgers offense?
AY: Defensive coordinator Brent Pry doesn’t bring a lot of extra pressure, preferring to rely on defensive ends Yetur Gross-Matos, Shareef Miller, and Shaka Toney to generate pressure. Penn State also got a pair of sacks from defensive tackle Robert Windsor last weekend, so I expect the front to make Artur Sitkowski very uncomfortable in this upcoming game.
AB: Special teams play overall statistically has been okay, but the specialists have struggled some this season. How does this unit look overall ahead of Saturday’s game?
AY: Jake Pinegar got off to a slow start with field goals this year, including a big miss in the Michigan State loss. However, he turned his season around with a 2-for-2 performance against Indiana and big 3-for-3 game against Iowa. The freshman missed a pair of kicks in the Wisconsin game, but he was battling the wind all game and still ended up with three made field goals for the game. Punter Blake Gillikin isn’t the best at keeping the ball out of the end zone, but he is fourth in the Big Ten in punting average.
AB: How many Penn State fans do you expect to attend on Saturday and what is your prediction for the game?
AY: I’m hoping for a big turnout in Piscataway, but Penn State fans didn’t even fill Beaver Stadium for last weekend’s noon start against Wisconsin, so I’m not sure how many will make the trip to New Jersey. As for the game, I think Sanders has another big day and Penn State wins 42-10.
Thanks to Aaron for giving great insight on Penn State football. You can follow him on twitter here and for complete coverage on all of PSU’s sports teams, visit Black Shoe Diaries. To read my answers to Aaron’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.