Any time Rutgers plays Penn State, it’s a big game, at least from a Rutgers perspective. During his weekly press conference on Monday, head coach Greg Schiano addressed the importance of Saturday’s matchup and his hope that the annual meeting develops into a legitimate rivalry in the years to come.
“We are not Penn State’s rival. That’s clear and the reason is that we haven’t given them a reason to make us their rival. When rivalries develop, it’s because there’s great contests on the field.” Schiano continued, “There’s great recruiting battles and that’s why so many rivalries are regional because you recruit the same kids and you have great games. It grows over time I don’t think you can make a rival. If we play well enough over a number of years here against Penn State, it will be a natural rival of bordering states and all that. But Rutgers has not given a reason yet to be Penn State’s rival.”
It really doesn’t matter that Penn State enters Saturday’s matchup at 1-5 and having just won its first game of the season last weekend against Michigan. This game will always mean more from a Rutgers point of view. The team has exceeded expectations in Schiano’s first season after last weekend’s come from behind victory over Purdue, even if the last minute losses to Illinois and Michigan were painful. The statistical improvements, particularly on offense, have been stunning. However, if Rutgers can beat Penn State, it would make the season and make Schiano’s first season a rousing success.
With just two weeks remaining in the regular season, Rutgers is dealing with some injury issues that are a concern. Despite a tremendous performance by the duo of Artur Sitkowski and Johnny Langan in the win over Purdue, replicating that effort against Penn State this weekend will certainly be a challenge if incumbent starter Noah Vedral misses a second straight game. The PSU defense is third in sacks and fourth in the Big Ten in yards allowed per game.
Although Vedral has had his share of bad moments this season, which include two games with three interceptions apiece, overall his play has been as good as Rutgers has had since Gary Nova had one of the best seasons in the Big Ten of any QB during the 2014 campaign. He currently ranks 4th in the conference in completion percentage at 64.2, 4th with 220.8 passing yards per game and is tied for the 4th most touchdown passes with 8.
Noah’s progressing,” Schiano said. “We are going to handle the quarterback reps however it sets up for us to have a chance to win the game. And a lot of times when you have guys coming off injuries, you have to see how they do. So you have to have your plan and your contingency. If that doesn’t work, then what are we going to do? And that’s always mapped out and we will just kind of roll with it and see how it plays out this week. And then make a decision as we did last week, depending upon how everybody is.”
While Langan in particular was heroic against Purdue and willed Rutgers to victory, running it as effectively as he did in that game against Penn State is unlikely. Add in the fact that starting left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal could miss a second straight game due to injury and it will be even more of a challenge for the offensive line to create holes for Langan and Isaih Pacheco to run.
Schiano discussed how important establishing depth along the line is and praised Brendan Bordner, who switched to offense before the season and replaced O’Neal against Purdue. “I think Brendan played well. That’s big for us,” Schiano said. “I thought he could do that but until you go out and do it against a Big Ten opponent, how do I know? I don’t. I always say to our guys there are some things I think I know and there are some things I know I know. Well, now I know I know because I have seen it. That gives us depth, that gives us a chance even in games if Raiqwon can come back, to give our tackles a breather. I think it’s huge.”
Other players that seemed to get banged up during the Purdue game were in the secondary with Avery Young and Brendon White. They are crucial to the success of the defense and while Schiano didn’t address their situations specifically, he commented on the team’s injury situation by saying, “Some guys are bumped up. We have to make sure they are getting treatment and it will be a week where we really have to get our guys feeling well physically. And with a 12 o’clock start, there is not a lot of time. So we are up against it.”
Rutgers is just 2-28 all-time against Penn State, last winning in 1988 that had players on that team “crying with happiness.” They are 10 point underdogs ahead of Saturday’s matchup as of now. The Scarlet Knights have been reasonably competitive against the Nittany Lions the past two years and trailed by just one score in the fourth quarter in last season’s before falling 27-6. The closest game between the two foes since Rutgers joined the Big Ten was the first meeting in 2014 when PSU scored late to win 13-10.
“As you watch Penn State on film they are a very talented team. Defensively they run very, very well. And offensively it looks like they’re kind of hitting their stride. So it’ll be a big challenge. Good to have it at home. And looking forward to it.”
If Rutgers can beat Penn State, it would make Schiano’s first season back on the banks. James Franklin has negatively recruited against Rutgers for years and this would be a fine looking feather to put in Schiano’s recruiting cap moving forward. It would be as satisfying a win for the fan base in years. It won’t be easy as Penn State clearly has much more talent on its roster, but the fight that Rutgers has played with this season has inspired hope for this weekend and beyond.