Rutgers is preparing to return home for a matchup with Penn State. This is a battle that the Scarlet Knights have not fared well in over the years.
To preview the game, we were joined by Brian Bennett of Black Shoe Diaries to gain some insight on the other side.
OTB: James Franklin — I, personally, have been critical in the past. Penn State has not yet reached the level of the top two in the Big Ten. What is the overall thoughts about their head coach coming from Penn State fans?
BSD: I’m going to push back a bit about where Penn State is as a program in comparison to Michigan specifically. Since Franklin’s arrival, the programs are pretty even - especially once Franklin’s best attribute, his recruiting, started to yield results. The Lions have won a Big Ten title, though it seems as if that was forever ago. Still, Penn State has been to three New Year’s Six Bowls (poised to maybe make a fourth if they finish strong) and has spent part of every season ranked in the top ten of the country going back to that 2016 Big Ten title team. Penn State is clearly chasing Ohio State and certainly Michigan this season. However, I do think the Lions under Franklin’s watch have separated themselves from the rest of the pack - with the exception of the bizarre 2020 season and post-Sean Clifford injury last year.
Now, on Franklin specifically - I do think there’s frustration because Penn State wasn’t able to capitalize on the catapult of 2016 to keep itself front and center along with Ohio State. The Lions lost back-to-back years to the Buckeyes where Penn State had double digit fourth quarter leads. Those losses ultimately cost Penn State in terms of a conference title and maybe even a national championship in 2017. Many are wondering if he ever can get Penn State to the playoff and life will get more challenging with USC and UCLA joining soon - though it does come with an expanded playoff. But, with that shiny new contract, there’s no turning back anytime soon.
OTB: Sean Clifford returning for another year. He has led Penn State to 8-2 with a chance to win out. Has there been any rush for Drew Allar to take over this season? If not, talk about some of the excitement about this QB moving forward.
BSD: From Week One, maybe even before, Penn State fans have been ready to see Drew Allar play. Of course, that’s partly because of the adage that the backup quarterback is the most popular player on the team. But even aside from the recruiting stars, Allar stepped in against Purdue in the season opener and made a couple of impressive throws and he threw a couple of tantalizing deep balls a week later against Ohio. Since then, Allar’s been relegated to mop-up duty as Clifford has been who he always has been: inconsistent with flashes of greatness flanked by horrific turnovers…but mostly managing to beat everyone on the schedule who Penn State out talents.
Going back to the first question, there are a lot of Penn State fans that believe quarterback play has been the single biggest thing keeping the Nittany Lions out of the College Football Playoff picture a couple of times in the past five years. There’s hope and belief that Allar could be that guy.
OTB: Penn State has talent at the skill positions once again. Specifically Parker Washington, who continues the trend of the Nittany Lions churning out wide receivers. Who are the biggest weapons to watch this weekend?
BSD: Washington was having sort of a meh year until breaking out in the White Out against Minnesota and having a career game against Ohio State. The past two weeks, however, Penn State has really leaned on its running game. Those are the playmakers I’d highlight. Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen were both highly touted running back recruits who Penn State fans were excited about seeing play. They’ve exceeded the hype. Singleton is on pace to break Saquon Barkley’s freshman rushing yards record and already holds the single-season touchdown mark for a Penn State freshman.
Meanwhile, Allen himself has found the end zone a lot - he’s tied for the previous touchdown record that Singleton now holds. Allen would be categorized as a patient, physical runner. Meanwhile, Singleton has the speed and explosiveness to score on any given play. Yet both have improved in a variety of facets throughout the year and are playing far beyond their true freshman status.
OTB: Defensively, what are the strengths for Penn State? Rutgers has not scored double-digits in this matchup since 2014. How can they do it this weekend?
BSD: Penn State’s defensive line has been outstanding the past couple of weeks. From the opening drive, Maryland had no success against the Lions. Meanwhile, the secondary has been a strength all season though NFL-bound cornerback Joey Porter, Jr. missed last week’s game and I’d be surprised if he plays against Rutgers.
With that in mind, Penn State’s weakest, and thinnest area, is linebacker. Abdul Carter has emerged as a freshman standout, but still that’s an area that teams will try to exploit, especially with starting linebacker Curtis Jacobs injured (his status for Saturday is up in the air). That middle of the field is an area where good teams have been able to get Penn State some - and it’s an area that Rutgers will need to try to attack.
OTB: Is there a matchup on either side of the ball that you can see taking over and swinging momentum one way or the other?
BSD: Joe Harasymiak vs. Sean Clifford. I don’t think I’m going way out on a limb in saying that the Rutgers offense is going to have a hard time regularly driving the field against Penn State’s defense. How can the Rutgers defense make life easier? Force Clifford into those throws or fumbles that have haunted him at times throughout his career. If Rutgers can win the turnover battle - maybe even score on a Pick 6 like they did against Indiana - they can hang around much like they did in 2018 and 2019.
OTB: Finally, what is your prediction? Who wins the game, what is the score, and why?
BSD: There were a lot of questions about how motivated Penn State would be entering November after their fourth quarter collapse against Ohio State ended any conference or playoff hopes. The Nittany Lions have answered with emphatic wins against Indiana and Maryland. I think enough of Schiano to know that he’ll have Rutgers up for this one and they’ll play hard, keeping things closer than Penn State fans would like for much of a chilly Saturday late afternoon. But, ultimately, I think Penn State’s talent and depth win out in the end: Penn State 31, Rutgers 10