Another long, strange week for Rutgers football heading into the season finale. Ever since the 27-0 blowout loss against Michigan State last Saturday, the program had Greg Schiano withdraw his name from consideration for the Head Coaching position and then we got word the two sides appear to be back in discussions.
As for Penn State, they come in losers in two of three after starting the season 8-0. Of course the two losses came to Minnesota and Ohio State, both of which were undefeated at the time.
In an effort to find out more about the current and future state of this week’s opponent, I was fortunate to speak with Dylan Callaghan-Croley of SB Nation’s Penn State site, Black Shoe Diaries. Thanks to him for taking the time to preview PSU ahead of Saturday’s game regular season finale against Rutgers. He answered questions on what Penn State’s weaknesses are, Jersey ties, and how good this version of the Nittany Lions is really. Let’s kickoff things here.
DA: Is this one of the better Penn State teams in recent memory or is it just that so many opponents have struggled this year? I thought McSorely and co. was way better than Hackenberg and co. independent of Barkley even before my New York Jets realized the same.
DCC: I would say that it’s been a bit of a combination. I think this Penn State team is pretty good all things considered especially on defense. While the offense is above average, this may be the best defense, Penn State has put on the field in a very long time. I think the only thing they probably got truly lucky with is when they played Michigan. I would say they’ve gotten lucky as well in terms of playing inept offenses at times especially considering how their own offense has struggled themselves throughout the season. That being said, the defense is legitimately a very strong defense that did get exposed recently in the passing game but I think their performance against Ohio State was a heck of an effort. Is this team better than 2016 or 2017 Penn State? I’m not sure, but are they close? I’d say so but they’ve also gotten to this point in a much different way.
DA: Is Sean Clifford his own worst enemy by having played so well all season that expectations got too high? Do you want to see Will Levis play this game regardless of Clifford’s health?
DCC: I’m not sure if expectations ever got too high for Clifford but I do think that many probably thought that in games such as Minnesota, he’d rise to the occasion. Penn State got spoiled having a quarterback like Trace McSorley in that aspect. That being said, I think Clifford probably put too much expectations on himself at times and that’s when he struggled. In terms of this weekend, I think Will Levis is the fight option to go with. Get Clifford healthy and give the redshirt freshman some valuable experience.
DA: With Ricky Slade disappointing and receivers beyond the starters not breaking out, is there concern with the skill positions right now? If not, who are the guys we should expect to take a huge step heading into 2020?
DCC: At running back there is little to no concern. Penn State has three really good backs in Journey Brown, Noah Cain, and Devyn Ford. A three-headed monster potentially going forward. Now, at wideout there’s probably a bit on concern. The receivers despite a coaching change just haven’t developed as expected and with KJ Hamler potentially going pro, there’s a lot questioning who will be the top receiver next fall. Obviously with Justin Shorter leaving the program, that answer has become cloudier.
DA: What is Rutgers’s best chance to score on this defense? It seems that Penn State will eat up runs at or near the line of scrimmage.
DCC: Rutgers’s best chance offensively will to be creative in their passing game. Penn State’s secondary has been the issue of late and the at times have struggled in one-on-one coverage. Penn State plays mostly zone but if Rutgers can get a one-on-one, they’ll have a chance to score.
DA: Is Steven Gonzalez the most decorated New Jersey player on the PSU roster? What other seniors are you happiest to see honored, saddest to see go on senior day?
DCC: Well, technically cornerback John Reid is from New Jersey I believe, so he would take the cake there. But Gonzalez has been a tremendous asset to Penn State over his career and was a big part of the offensive lines success this season. Off the top of my head, Penn State fans will be sad to see defensive tackle Robert Windsor go for sure. He’s become a fan favorite at times and has become a hell of a DT in the process. Linebacker Jan Johnson will be playing in his final game, he’s not the greatest linebacker but he’s been tremendous at times and was a major key to this team’s success. He was also a member of one of Penn State’s wrestling national champions. He’s grown into quite a fan favorite as well during his time. From walk-on to starter, he’s been quite the story.
DA: Even if he/they don’t go to Rutgers, what Penn State assistants are hot coaching candidates that could get another job prior to the bowl game or depart before next season?
DCC: The only coach we really can see leaving right now is defensive coordinator Brent Pry. He’s been a candidate at jobs in the past and he’ll be a candidate this offseason probably again. If it’s the right situation, we could definitely see him leaving. Other than that, offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has said that he doesn’t want to be a head coach so we’ll take his word on that for now but he may garner some interest as well.
DA: What bowl game do you and the fan base think Penn State deserves this year?
DCC: Here at BSD, we all agree that Penn State deserves an NY6 bowl. This team has one of the best resumes in the country and is by far the best two loss team in the country. They’ve played ranked opponents all but twice since October and their pair of losses are to two teams with a combined record of 21-1. So Rose Bowl or Orange Bowl are right now the two options that we’d prefer the most right now but Cotton Bowl will be acceptable.
DA: Do yous or yinz at PSU prefer Pat’s Cheesesteaks (my choice over Geno’s though I also like plenty of others like Jim’s on South St.) or Primanti Brothers? Philly and Pittsburgh are two of my favorite eating towns in the country.
DCC: As a suburban Philadelphian, I would say that I’ll always go with a cheesesteak. Now, my favorite cheesesteaks are Dalessandro’s and Max’s. That being said Primanti Brothers is excellent as well but you can’t go wrong with an authentic Philly cheesesteak.
Thanks to Dylan for taking the time to share great insight on the current state of Penn State football. For complete coverage of Penn State athletics, visit Black Shoe Diaries. To read my answers to their questions on Rutgers football, click here once posted.