Penn State hopes to remain undefeated and notch the first conference victory of the James Franklin era against Big Ten Powerhouse Rutgers.
Penn State (2-0, 0-0) vs. Rutgers (2-0, 0-0)
Kickoff: 8 p.m., High Point Solutions Stadium, Piscataway, NJ
The Line: PSU -3.5
TV: BTN Kevin Kugler (play-by-play), Glen Mason and Shaun O'Hara(analyst) Tina Cervasio (sideline)
Weather: Mid-60s with a chance of showers.
PENN STATE RECORD: 2-0, 1st Year
OVERALL RECORD: 27-15, 4th Year
VS. RUTGERS: 0-0
RUTGERS RECORD: 17-11, 3rd Year
OVERALL RECORD: Same
VS. PENN STATE: 0-0
...NOW THE FUN PART
RUTGERS OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE Unlike Penn State, Rutgers has a primary running back who will receive the bulk of the carries on Saturday. Sophomore Paul James has been impressive thus far, averaging 5.1 yards per carry during the young season. He can also be used out of the backfield- last week he had two receptions for 100 yards against Howard, including a 69 yard touchdown. In 2013, he hauled in 11 passes for 107 yards- not too notable, but something that can go a long way in converting a crucial third down or two this week.
Penn State should be able to limit James' production on the ground, meaning Rutgers is more likely to place the game in the hands of quarterback Gary Nova. The senior is off to an impressive start, and has the efficiency to keep the Scarlet Knights on the field. But it won't be easy. Against Howard and Washington State, Nova has completed 31 of 46 passes for 563 yards, six touchdowns and one interception.
Penn State's defensive line should be able to apply regular pressure against Nova, hopefully forcing him into a bad decision or two (something he won't likely make on his own). The Nittany Lions also have the most skilled secondary, probably by far, Rutgers has faced this season. Deion Barnes, C.J. Olaniyan and Anthony Zettel will need to continue to find their way into the backfield to keep Nova from regularly driving the team the length of the field into scoring position. Expect to also see linebackers Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, among others, used in an attempt to apply pressure on Nova early and often.
Keep an eye out for junior wide receiver Leonte Carroo, who is averaging 24.4 yards per reception in the Golden Knights first two games, after averaging 17.1 yards per catch in 2013. Carro is a speedy threat who could make his way behind Penn State's secondary for a big play or two on Saturday.
RUTGERS DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE If you've read this far, you are fully aware that Penn State will pin its hopes for victory on the arm (and possibly the legs) of record-setting quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The good news for Penn State is that Rutgers' defense has allowed 700 yards through the air against Washington State and Howard. While that number is somewhat inflated when you take Wazzou's aerial attack into consideration, it's worth noting that Nevada held the Cougers to 143 less yards passing than the Scarlet Knights. However you choose to interpret those figures, Hackenberg should have another big game on Saturday night if the offensive line can give him time.
That is a big if, as the match-up between Penn State's offensive line and Rutgers' defensive line will likely dictate the outcome of the game. The Scarlet Knights have an excellent line that could give Hack fits. If Penn State can find a way to give him time in the pocket, Hackenberg could have another 400-plus yards in the air. If not, Rutgers can keep him from getting into a rhythm and shut down the Penn State offense.
The Nittany Lions worked at establishing the running game in the second half of the Akron game, most notably during the fourth quarter drive where nearly every play consisted of either Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton or Akeel Lynch taking a direct snap from the wildcat formation. We'll see if the coaching staff truly plans to make this a part of the offense for the remainder of the season, or if it was simply gamesmanship by the coaching staff to throw off Rutgers' gameplan. Regardless, Penn State will need to begin establishing more of a consistent running game than what we've witnessed so far to come away with a win on Saturday.
In a refreshing change of pace, Belton was used in a variety of manners to take advantage of his athleticism against Akron. Hopefully he once again lines up all over the field to add an additional wrinkle to the offense.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Hello, Chris Gulla. The redshirt freshman only had one opportunity to punt in the week one victory against Central Florida, but demonstrated incredible potential by averaging 48.8 yards on five punts against Akron, including three that pinned the Zips inside their own 20. Gulla may become Penn State's best punter since Jeremy Boone, which would give the Nittany Lions a huge advantage in the field position battle. While Gulla saw plenty of playing time in week two, Sam Ficken did not get much of his chance to build on his Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week performance in Ireland. He hit all three of his extra points with zero field goal attempts, but still lacked consistency on kickoffs.
Rutgers kicker Kyle Federico is three of four on field goal attempts for the season, missing a short field goal against Howard. In 2013 he was connected on just 12 of 18 attempts. Punter Joseph Roth is averaging about 38 yards on five punts so far in 2014, with a long of 48. Penn State should have the advantage in the kicking game as long as Gulla and Ficken perform to their potential, which is especially important if Saturday results in a tight contest.
PENN STATE- 27 RUTGERS- 20 It's still too early to really know much about either team, so I'm going with the homer pick. Although I will say the more I learn about Rutgers, the more I like the way Penn State matches up. Both teams have one quality victory, but even that doesn't tell us much as we don't know enough about Central Florida or Washington State- although, I can definitely say Central Florida looks to be the much better team without much bias.
For reasons unknown to anyone outside of New Jersey, Saturday's contest is being billed as one of the biggest, if not the biggest, game in the history of Rutgers football. The atmosphere will be electric on Saturday, and the Scarlet Knights fanbase will do all they can to give their team a homefield advantage. Penn State will need to remain focused on the task at hand- most notably the offensive line avoiding penalties and communication breakdowns. If they don't, Rutgers defensive line will pounce on the opportunity to make them pay.
I'll go with the good guys in a tight contest decided by a couple big plays that go Penn State's way in the fourth quarter. Hackenberg throws for 390 yards and all three touchdowns, including another 70+ yard scoring strike to Geno Lewis. On defense, Mike Hull wreaks havoc all over the field by collecting 15 tackles, Deion Barnes picks up two sacks, and Adrian Amos forces a key fumble on a safety blitz.