Rutgers (2-4) will host Penn State (1-5) on Saturday and surprisingly comes into the game with the better record. Both teams played well the week before with PSU knocking off Michigan for the first win of its season. Whether Noah Vedral is healthy enough to return into the starting quarterback role for Rutgers remains to be seen, but the duo of Artur Sitkowski and Johnny Langan led the Scarlet Knights to a come from behind victory over Purdue last weekend.
RU is 0-6 against Penn State as Big Ten foes and have lost 13 straight against them, last winning in 1988. Rutgers will be looking to end that streak with a season defining win in the last home game of the season on Saturday.
In an effort to find out more about this week's opponent, I was fortunate to speak with Dylan Callaghan-Croley, who is a contributor for SB Nation’s Penn State site, Black Shoe Diaries. Find out more about the Nittany Lions here.
AB: How have fans reacted to the 1-5 start to the season and how much heat is head coach James Franklin experiencing? Is he the long term answer for Penn State?
DCC: The slow start certainly was a surprise and really halted Penn State fans in their tracks. It is safe to that they have not reacted well to the slow start this season and a lot of the heat has in fact gone on James Franklin, though defensive coordinator Brent Pry and quarterback Sean Clifford have gotten plenty of heat themselves. Now, unless Franklin leaves on his own terms, he’ll be the head coach for the foreseeable future to some fans dismay. Now, in terms of being the long term answer it’s honestly hard to say. He’s not a great game day coach but he’s usually a pretty good CEO type head coach. While he’s not on his level, Franklin is similar to Dabo. Everyone forgets Dabo isn’t a great coach by himself but he’s built a tremendous program and culture as well as putting together a great group of assistants around him. I think Penn State had that group not too long ago that was elite but people have slowly left over the years (Josh Gattis, Charles Huff, Sean Spencer). He’s struggled with some hires and some players haven’t developed as expected but those shouldn’t serve as excuses for some losses this year and over the last few years. Ultimately, I think Franklin is a guy who for most of the time will have Penn State as a 9-3 to 11-1 team. They’ll have some down years here and there but over the course of a decade I’d say 7-8 of those teams would be at least nine win teams. But in terms of getting Penn State over the hump and into the playoffs? I’m honestly not sure but if he is, he’ll have to get this program back on track quickly both on and off the field.
AB: Penn State has been outscored by wide margins in the first half this season. What have been the biggest factors in the slow starts and what do they need to improve on to rectify this issue?
DCC: Yeah, slow starts have killed Penn State this year and I think a lot of it comes down to just not having the quarterback play and some weird play calling. It’s hard to move the ball when your quarterback is having really bad accuracy issues and with no answer seemingly on the bench, you’re kind of stuck. The play calling this season has been questionable at times and bas taken way momentum a few times as well which is incredibly frustrating. Additionally, if they can’t get a run game going early, it’s usually a bad sign. We saw this past week against Michigan, the ability to pound the rock and how it helped Clifford and the offense develop more of a rhythm.
AB: The offense has experienced a lot of changes this season with new OC Kirk Ciarocca, QB shift and the medical retirement of Journey Brown. Do you think last week’s performance in the win over Michigan and emergence of Keyvone Lee signs that the offense is on its way up?
DCC: It certainly will help! Lee was outstanding against Michigan and not having that go to back for Penn State has been tough this season. Losing Brown was a big enough blow but then losing Noah Cain, a few snaps into the season and Devyn Ford just not where he needs to be yet has caused quite the running issues. The offensive line play hasn’t exactly been stellar either. But now with Lee as a potential emerging threat, the Nittany Lions offense can maybe open up the playbook a bit more and get something going here in the final three games. I also think the breakout of true freshman wideout Parker Washington is huge as well. He’s been great all season, but last week we saw him show the ability to be “the guy” for Penn State. With Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington, the Nittany Lions have one of their best 1-2 punches at receiver in a while. All that being said, I still have my doubts about the offense because of the struggles this season and I just don’t think you can trust Clifford yet again, at least right now.
AB: The defense has struggled this season, particularly in the red zone. What have been the biggest reasons for the step back this season and did their performance against Michigan inspire hope they will continue to improve?
DCC: Is it cheating if I say everything? I mean I’m half hoking and half serious. The entire defense has been an issue this year at every level, the regression is truly baffling though when looking back at last year, the signs may have been there. The schemes and play calling this year have been abnormally bad and when you’re front seven can’t get to the quarterback, you’re secondary is liable to getting picked apart. I can honestly sit here for a while and talk about it but it’s simple. When things start going bad for this defense, it spitballs out of control. Its a talented defense but with a lack of general playmakers right now, opposing offenses really have nothing to fear. I think the Michigan game may give the players some confidence but at the end of the day, Michigan right now is a dumpster fire and it’s hard to fake anything away from that game in my opinion.
AB: Who are key players in this matchup that Rutgers fans should be aware of that you expect to make a big impact?
DCC: Key players I expect to make an impact are on offense, Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington. Right now, they may be the two best players on the Penn State roster regardless of position. Both are future pro wide receivers with a ton of potential, Dotson dominated earlier this season and showed what he could do against Ohio State. Washington broke out last week and I think he continues that this week against the Scarlet Knights.
Defensively, that’s a great question because of how disappointing it has been this season. I think defensive lineman Jayson Oweh is viable to have a huge game at any point this season. He was expected to take a huge step forward this season and just hasn’t done so. He’s shown flashes but just can’t finish in terms of getting to the quarterback but that’s really the entire defensive line. Another name to know on defense is cornerback Joey Porter Jr, he looked really good at the beginning of this season and has been solid throughout but has gotten a bit banged up here and there. A tall and lengthy corner, he has a lot of potential and has the makings of a potential shutdown corner for Penn State.
AB: What is the confidence level of Penn State fans for this matchup and what is your prediction for the game?
DCC: Penn State fans are optimistic because on paper they’re the much more talented team. That being said, one of these teams has shown up every week and played really quality football and the other hasn’t. We all know which team is which. I think most fans are expecting a close hard fought game that if Penn State isn’t careful, Rutgers has a serious chance of winning. I do think Penn State will win but I think it will be close, with a spread I believe around 11-points in favor of PSU, I’m leaning towards perhaps a 35-27 win for Penn State. I think it’s close late in the game and Penn State gets either a late field goal or touchdown to win by 10-14 points.
Thanks to Dylan for taking the time to give such great insight on Penn State football ahead of Saturday’s game. You can follow him on Twitter here and make sure to visit Black Shoe Diaries for complete coverage of Penn State athletics. To read my answers to Dylan’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.