Less than 24 hours away from kickoff of the most important game of the season for Rutgers football. A win over Penn State would be a landmark moment for the program, even if the visitors have had a down year. The weather might be messy and whichever team can find a way to make big plays will have the upper hand. It should be as competitive a game as these two teams have played since 2014. Our contributors make their picks here, as well as offer some reflection on last week’s performance and whether Rutgers can deliver once again.
Greg Patuto: If there is one game this weekend that screams “2020”, it is this one. Penn State entered the season as a top-10 team in the nation but has just one win on the season. To make this matchup even more eye-popping, Rutgers is a game ahead of the Nittany Lions at 2-4. The Scarlet Knights are riding high off a 37-30 road victory over Purdue but Penn State was also able to get right in Week 6 against Michigan.
If this year has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected. Rutgers enters this game as an 11.5-point underdog. That is far too high given the fact that Rutgers might have, dare I say it, the more explosive offense. Those are words we are not used to. Take Rutgers and the points. As for the overall outcome, it seems impossible to pick Rutgers here, right? I have picked them once this season and that was against Illinois where they fell by three points at home. Let’s give it another shot. There is nothing to lose. Rutgers 28, Penn State 23
Dave White: I have not been right all season. Literally, every single game I haven’t been close. The game(s) I’ve picked Rutgers to win, they’ve lost. The games I picked them to get blown out in? They win. I have no idea. My gut says Rutgers is going to throw the kitchen sink at Penn State. And now, Penn State off a win against Michigan has a little momentum. The first win is the hardest to get. I don’t know how much momentum that will add to the Nittany Lions, but I don’t think it will slow them down. Listen, it comes down to this—if Franklin is going to stick around at Penn State (and I don’t expect PSU to fire him), he needs this game badly for recruiting purposes. Rutgers needs this game for recruiting purposes, for the fans, for their souls. And, make no mistake, if Rutgers loses this game, the fan meltdown will be legendary for a first year program—not that it should be. Penn State is still talented. But here’s the kicker—it’s supposed to rain on Saturday. Not just regular rain, but pour. And there’s potential for snow. So strap in for a game that keeps the ball on the ground. I hate making this prediction, but remember, I’ve been wrong all season. Penn State 27 Rutgers 21
Adam Ross: The numbers say that this will be a closely contested, hard fought game and one that should favor Penn State. So far this season, RU has been generated 65 yards of offense less per game than their opponent, whereas PSU generates 70 yards more. A 135 yard swing could be the difference of one more possession to score. With an atypical December game on the schedule, this could really come down to which team handles the ball better, and stays disciplined. Unfortunately, the penalties (RU gives up 30 more yards per game) and turnovers (PSU averages 1.5 more takeaways per game) don’t instill too much confidence. In Rutgers’ favor is Coach Schiano and Coach Gleeson, whom have a proclivity for tailoring the offensive game plan to suit their opponent each week. And in the fact that its 2020, and who knows what the hell happens, so why not predict a win Rutgers 27 Penn State 24
Danny Burrick: With me only being 17 years old, I don’t remember much of Coach Schianos first stint at Rutgers. Watching the Purdue game last week really gave me an idea of what it was like and what it will be like in the future. I can’t remember the last time before that game that I enjoyed watching a Rutgers football game. Penn St. is coming off a big win over Michigan and is looking to keep the foot on the pedal at Rutgers. I believe that if Rutgers can continue to use Johnny Langan in the run game like they did last week, Rutgers will have an easier time offensively. Rutgers will be able to stop the Penn St. run game which will help them and I feel this game will come down to a field goal and Valentino Ambrosio will get his revenge for missing the game winning field goal against Michigan. Rutgers 41, Penn State 38.
David Anderson: All the other wins since Rutgers joined the Big Ten were pretty much perfect situations for Rutgers with the opponent dealing with a lot of adversity. Last week saw both teams missing their starting QB, Rutgers missing their left tackle, Purdue ended up missing their best two defensive players by the second half; in years’ past (even two weeks ago) the Scarlet Knights would have failed to take advantage of it. This time there were no excuses, just digging deep and out-willing the opponent. The Nittany Lions are good enough to stop QB runs on every play, so Rutgers needs to be a little more creative this week. Penn State has the talent advantage and went back to basics last week in a win over Michigan, so I am curious to see if the rest on their laurels or try to be a little more aggressive. I don’t think Penn State should be a double digit favorite, but Rutgers hasn’t beaten them since I was in diapers and I believe in PSU OC Kirk Ciarrocca a little more than Rutgers DC Robb Smith. I hope I am wrong again. Penn State 26, Rutgers 24
Fred Gaudios: For me in last week’s game, the main story of this game was that Rutgers made a halftime adjustment and Purdue didn’t (or tried to, but couldn’t execute). Schiano was knocked at times, and rightfully so, in his first go-around as Rutgers’ head coach for a lack of in-game flexibility, but on Saturday, Rutgers was by far the better coached team. Rutgers realized Purdue had no answer for a 90% run, 10% pass-style offense, and stuck with it even though it probably wasn’t their preference. Johnny Langan was remarkable, and perhaps his best drive ended in a field goal to make the game 37-30 Rutgers simply because it took at least eight or nine minutes to move the ball down the field. Much props also to the Rutgers defense for completely shutting down Purdue in the second half, and for securing a key turnover as well. I couldn’t be more thrilled with this Rutgers team’s progress, and they are so fun to watch. We are fortunate as fans to experience this right now.
As for this weekend, count me among the subset of Rutgers fans who don’t get overly excited when Rutgers plays Penn State. Maybe I’ll feel differently in a few years, but right now Rutgers is a thin-rostered team in Year 1 of a massive rebuild, playing much better than expected at this stage. I honestly would feel the same way I feel right now if they had SW Missouri State next on the schedule, given all things 2020 – I’m just glad Rutgers is playing (and healthy) each week. Yet, I’m flabbergasted to see Rutgers as 11-point underdogs at home against a historically bad Penn State team. I don’t know if Rutgers has enough offensive firepower to hang for sixty minutes in this game, but come on — eleven points in the cold, wind, and rain? Especially if Rutgers takes the “Johnny Langan and a cloud of dust” approach on offense all game, it’s difficult to expect a big-scoring game in either direction. I think Rutgers will compete, but ultimately lose a close, low-scoring game. Penn State 19, Rutgers 14.
Cara Sanfilippo: I, as much as Rutgers, needed the win against Purdue. After spending the morning at the emergency vet after my dog was attacked the night before and spending the day watching her try to get comfortable, I needed some positivity in my life. And Rutgers to their credit kept my mind distracted for two hours and kept us highly entertained. I knew they could do it! I loved the energy with which this team played and as Schiano mentioned in his press conference, how they really played for each other. Right when Langan made the 3rd and short in the fourth quarter to ice the game, they panned to the sidelines and showed Sitkowski jumping up and down and cheering. That is some real class and shows the heart this team has for each other. While of course I had the reaction many did in thinking “wow, they could be 4-2 if they had won the last two weeks, this is a rebuild. There will be some great moments, and some head-scratchers, but tonight this team came to win. After being the punching bag of the B1G for so many years, my husband just read a headline on ESPN saying that we no longer are. Schiano has brought some national recognition back to this team and the players and fan base deserve to celebrate. I couldn’t be happier.
In terms of this week, if we could find a way to beat Penn State, well that would cap the season for me before it even ends. I still remember 2014 when a Gary Nova interception led to a 13-10 loss to Penn State in the 4th quarter. I remember all the energy deflating from the stadium when we realized we had just squandered a huge chance. I’ve been out for blood since then especially given how nasty their fans have been over the years, with personal experience on this topic, and the fact that in Hoboken there are so many Penn State bars even though Rutgers is the state school. While this is Penn State and they have more talent, they are 1-5 and we would have been Michigan too if a few things would have gone our way. Both teams will be looking to have a repeat of the week before but I do think the 3 quarterback situation will work in our favor offensively, and we can stop the run. Plus this is 6 years overdo. I’m prediction a win again. Gritty and not pretty, but a win. Rutgers 24, Penn State 21
Justin Raffone: I wrote about Rutgers needing to find ways to win to close out the season and they did just that against Purdue. It was the best game Rutgers played from a technical standpoint. The game was unbelievably even from a statistical standpoint. Both teams totaled 412 yards with Rutgers throwing for 236 and running for 176 while the Boilermakers threw for 237 and ran for 175. Rutgers had 26 first downs to Purdue’s 25. But here is where the Scarlet Knights won the game: with one punt, zero fumbles lost, zero interceptions and a 35:08 time of possession. I was happy to see Sitkowski play well and was amazed at how much Johnny Langan took over the game. As much as we all love Adam Korsak, it was nice to not see him on the field every other drive and it was even better that Rutgers didn’t turn the ball over. This was a huge game for Rutgers and it proves they can close out games and compete in the Big Ten. One thing they will need to work on against Penn State is penalties. They had seven for 56 yards, but that was one of their only issues. It took a near perfect game to get another win, but after fighting so hard all year, they know they can get it done.
In regard to Penn State, an old school football saying states “if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterback.” I think that’s a statement both Greg Schiano and James Franklin would disagree with after both their teams used two quarterbacks on their way to victory last weekend. The saying usually has to do with giving two quarterbacks equal reps and not being able to name a legitimate starter, which isn’t what Rutgers did last week.
The Scarlet Knights finally have a modern offense under first year offensive coordinator Sean Gleeson and he did a great job of figuring out how to get the best out of Artur Sitkowski and Johnny Langan after starter Noah Vedral was ruled out against Purdue. Schiano has already stated that when Vedral is healthy enough to play, however, he will take back starting duties. The team has stuck with Vedral through a couple of tough games to get a great performance from him in the triple overtime loss to Michigan, and will stick with him through his injury. Penn State, on the other hand, has more of a QB controversy. Sean Clifford and Will Levis have both started games this year for Penn State and neither has been particularly good at throwing the football. Clifford is completing 57.8% of his passes with 6.8 yards per attempt and Levis is completing 57.4% of his passes with 6.9 yards per attempt. Clifford is also the Nittany Lions’ leading rusher, though his 255 yards is nothing to write home about. I think Clifford will get another start after the win over Michigan last week, but Levis will probably be used in a Langan-type roll with his 225lb frame. Like Bo Melton for Rutgers, Penn State has a dangerous wide receiver in junior Jahan Dotson. Dotson made a heartbreaking touchdown play last year against Rutgers and is a having a nice season averaging 16.4 yards per catch with six touchdowns. Both defenses have given up over 32 PPG so far so this could be a high scoring game.
Turnovers, penalties and big plays are usually keys to every game, but with how poorly these two teams have played at times, these will be even more important this week. I think Vedral comes back and has another clean game with Raiqwon O’Neal protecting his blindside and hooks up with Melton for a big score while Olakunle Fatukasi continues to be the leader on defense and Schiano has his team disciplined in his first meeting with Penn State—who he was a graduate assistant with in 1990 before coaching the defensive backs for four years. He gets Rutgers’ second ever win versus Penn State and first since 1988, the year before Schiano was a graduate assistant at Rutgers. Rutgers 33 Penn State 28
Aaron Breitman: I think the win at Purdue did wonders for the confidence of this team and we’ll see the benefit of that the rest of the way. The players believe in the coaching staff and themselves in way that can help them harness their potential as a team. I really think things are aligned well for their best performance on Saturday.
It doesn’t matter what Penn State’s record is. The fact that they have blue blood DNA and a much more talented roster would make it a significant win. It would be the most satisfying Rutgers victory in years and help change perception of the program both within the conference and on the recruiting trail in a big way. Schiano is a master motivator and will have this team ready to play. RU has played with confidence and emotion this season, which is why Saturday should be no different. Don’t be surprised if Rutgers gets off to a good start in this game, as they are outscoring opponents 54-24 in the first quarter this season. Winning the turnover battle will be key and I expect a close game the entire way. Ultimately, Rutgers makes one more big play and pulls off the upset! Rutgers 34 Penn State 31
Are we too optimistic or is this finally the year that the Scarlet Knights breaks through against the Nittany Lions? Let us know your thoughts and pick in the comment section.