Rutgers heads to Happy Valley for the annual meeting against Penn State. Only a win away from clinching bowl eligibility and coming off the most lopsided victory since joining the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights are riding high into Beaver Stadium. Regardless of losing four of its last five games, the Nittany Lions still have a talent and depth advantage. They exploited this last season in dominating the trenches and physically beating up RU. Will it happen again on Saturday or will there be a different fate this season?
In an effort to find out more about this week’s opponent, we connected with Patrick Koerbler of SB Nation’s Penn State site, Black Shoe Diaries. Here are his thoughts on what to expect this weekend with the Nittany Lions.
AB: It’s been an up and down season and Penn State is just 10-9 since the start of last year, which you wrote in a great piece (link) this week. What is the overall pulse of the fan base in regard to the program and is there a general consensus on the job James Franklin has done so far? Do you expect him to be the coach next season?
PK: To answer the second part of your question first: yes, I do expect James Franklin to be the head coach next season. Really, the only reason he wouldn’t be is if he left on his own — which doesn’t seem likely given just how much steam he has lost in the USC and (more so) LSU head coach searches.
As for the general consensus, that’s a tougher question to answer. I think it starts with the fact that most fans realize just how great Franklin has been the last eight years. A quick rebuild that turned into a Big Ten title in 2016. Three 11-win seasons in four years from 2016-2019. And the off-the-field stuff that hasn’t gotten much media attention until recently — increasing the assistant salary pool, creating a legitimate recruiting assistant staff, and helping lead the way in facility upgrades — I think Franklin has done an A+ job getting this program into the 21st century.
But even for loyal Franklin fans, the last two years have been difficult. Even given the uniqueness of what he came into when he took the Penn State job in 2014, there just really isn’t any precedent for a coach to have this type of two-year downswing to then build it back up. So I think fans are just generally frustrated because it feels like things have plateaued in a major way.
AB: Penn State has lost four of its last five games, but they’re all by one score other than a 9 point defeat to Ohio State. Is this team really in a free fall or is it more of just being unable to close out games against mostly good teams aside from Illinois?
PK: It’s probably safe to say that Penn State is better than its record indicates because like you pointed out, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan were all extremely winnable games. But this is unfortunately not just a 2021 pattern — this has been a theme of the Franklin era. From the aforementioned 2016-2019 seasons, just about every loss was a close one that could have been prevented if one play went another way.
So in free fall? Probably not. But the losses don’t feel so much like bad luck, but more so just how limited the offense has been for one reason or another.
AB: Penn State has struggled on the ground this season and are second to last in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game. Has this been a steady issue all season or has it been part of the problem during this current stretch of losses?
PK: This has unfortunately been an issue all season. Through the first three games (Wisconsin, Ball State, and Auburn) a lot of fans just chalked up the struggles to the schedule. But when the Nittany Lions couldn’t mount a rushing attack against FCS Villanova — just 80 yards on 2.4 yards per carry — it sounded the alarms for much of the fan base.
The only real hope right now is that sophomore Keyvone Lee sees more of the carries. Between the three running backs Penn State has mostly used this season — Noah Cain and John Lovett being the other two — Lee has been by far the most productive on the ground, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. The Penn State staff has been weary to use him because he has had some issues with fumbling and doesn’t exactly do the whole blocking thing, but I think they are starting to value the “reward” more than the “risk.” He had 20 carries last game against Michigan, so I think you’ll see him lead the running backs this Saturday too.
AB: Rutgers was physically dominated in the trenches against Penn State last season. Is the personnel on both sides mostly the same and do you expect a similar result on Saturday?
PK: Given the struggles in the run game, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Penn State offensive line has not played well this season. To make matters even worse, both the starting left (Rasheed Walker) and right (Caedan Wallace) tackles missed practice on Wednesday with non-COVID illnesses. If they can’t go, it’s possible that true freshman Landon Tengwall and guard Bryce Effner get the starts on the outside.
As for the Penn State defensive line, it has mostly been really good. The Nittany Lions have been without 330-pound 1-Tech star PJ Mustipher since the Iowa game (one of the players who got booed for faking an injury!), but Derrick Tangelo, Coziah Izzard, and D’Von Ellies have all stepped up. The real stars are at defensive end though: Arnold Ebiketie and Jesse Luketa. Ebiketie in particular though has been spectacular, totaling 8.5 sacks and 15.5 TFLs this year. Worst case, he’ll be a Day 2 pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
So to answer your question, I think both Rutgers and Penn State will have an advantage with their defensive lines.
AB: What is your biggest concern heading into Saturday’s game against Rutgers?
PK: This sounds obvious, but being able to manufacture points. Rutgers defense is ranked 11th in the Big Ten but at just 22.7 points per game allowed, they are less than three points off from Ohio State’s 6th ranked Big Ten defense. I’m once again not expecting much of a running game from Penn State, so everything the offense does will have to be on Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson’s shoulders.
AB: What is your prediction for the game?
PK: Other than heart palpitations for 3.5 hours, I’m expecting a low scoring game that will remind folks of those classic mid-2000s Big Ten match ups where Pam Ward was calling the game. I do think Penn State wins, but with the line being -17 (and keep in mind I am a dreadful gambler) I just don’t think the Nittany Lions have enough juice offensively going against a solid Rutgers defense to put up enough points to cover. Thinking something like 20-10.
Thanks so much to Patrick for giving great insight on the current state of Penn State football. You can follow him on Twitter here and for complete coverage of Penn State athletics, visit Black Shoe Diaries. To read my answers to Patrick’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.