Maybe the best thing about tonight's game is that, despite rolling to a comfortable, never-in-doubt victory over a Rutgers team hellbent on gaining Penn State's respect even as it finds itself embroiled in controversy, tonight represented another installment in a series of meteoric weekly improvements, improvements that will only continue, if diminished in scope.
Despite an offensive line that kept Hackenberg upright and opened up gaping holes for the running backs; despite a pass catching group that finally saw receivers make big plays after the catch; despite a secondary that forced multiple turnovers and a front seven that stuffed the run and brought tons of pressure throughout.
Despite beating Rutgers 28 to 3, sending the Scarlet Knights back to Piscataway with their heads hung low, bruised and battered, well aware that they were a deeply, markedly, inferior team to the Nittany Lions lined up across from them.
Penn State absolutely destroyed Rutgers, and they can still get better. We came in dreading this game, maybe dreading the rest of the season, convinced that only embarrassment could be behind that door. Tonight, Penn State showed us that perhaps, there's another way--that watching our favorite team play football could actually be fun.
Perhaps for the first time in his sixteen games at Penn State, John Donovan found something that worked and stuck with it. It certainly helps when you're able to win the battle in the trenches--and Herb Hand's seat just got a whole lot cooler. Nonetheless, Penn State ran the ball down Rutgers' throat, and Penn State found more success on the ground than they have in years. Of course, the Nittany Lions' continuous and systematic gashing of the Rutgers front makes certain decisions--like throwing a convoluted screen and then running a QB sneak on 3rd- and 4th-and-1, respectively--seem even more questionable.
But the story, tonight, is less about James Franklin's embattled offensive coordinator than Saquon Barkley, Akeel Lynch, and the jet-sweep duo of DeAndre Thompkins and Brandon Polk. To his credit, Donovan used the jet sweep judiciously and effectively: two of the three netted either a first down or a touchdown. And to his credit, Franklin's, and perhaps running back coach Charles Huff's, Saquon Barkley didn't have to wait long to inevitably overtake Akeel Lynch (who, by the way, had a stellar game even as he found his starting spot rightfully usurped). Barkley plays like a greatest hits album of Penn State's last few rushers: he hits the hole as decisively as Lynch, runs downhill and with the balance of Zach Zwinak, is as slippery in the open field as--dare I say--Silas Redd. I was too late to the party to see Larry Johnson in the Blue and White, but I can't possibly imagine he looked better as a freshman than Barkley has. The most impressive thing about Barkley is that three games into his career, it barely feels presumptuous to say that he might go down as one of the greatest running backs in Penn State history. The sweetest thing about his performance tonight? He was once a Rutgers commit. But, you know, I don't think they really wanted him anyway.
Granted, it's only one game--and a game against a Rutgers' team with its best defensive player severely limited--but Rutgers is an athletic team, one that's been able to get after the quarterback this season, and Penn State's offensive line looked shockingly competent. Hackenberg was certainly hurried, and even hit a few times, but for the second straight game, wasn't sacked--though that's as much due to the improvement of the offensive line as it is a gameplan that didn't really let him hold on to the ball long enough for the pass rush to hit home. Hack started fairly strong, but struggled in the second half, and finished with what has become a sadly familiar stat line: a completion percentage hovering around 50%, yardage in the mid-100s, and more interceptions than touchdowns. If this offensive line starts to gel, and all indications suggest that it already has, it's imperative that John Donovan use his immensely talented quarterback to do more than throw screen pass after screen pass, with the occasional three-yard slant mixed in. It's sad that it's come to this, and it's not his fault, but Hackenberg's now the weak link in this offense--one that saw him complete passes to only three different receivers, despite Penn State's deep, talented, dynamic receiving core.
On defense, Penn State played what was unquestionably its best game of the season. Chris Laviano spent most of his dropbacks running for his life (when he wasn't throwing interceptions); Rutgers' receivers (especially Janarion Grant) rarely had any room after the catch; the running backs had to fight to gain two or three yards on the ground; the ballcarriers were stacked up and hit hard and stripped quickly, decisively, and frequently. Getting Brandon Bell back was key to a linebacking unit that has seen its two youngsters, Troy Reeder and Jason Cabinda, improve on a weekly basis. One only wonders how good this defense could be if Nyeem Wartman-White hadn't suffered a season-ending knee injury.
And yet, I'm sure Bob Shoop spent the second half--once this one was out of reach--mentally compiling the missed opportunities. Three different Nittany Lions failed to wrap up Josh Hicks in the end zone for what would've been a safety; Laviano escaped a few sacks; Jordan Lucas dropped a sure interception; at least once, Penn State failed to line up properly and gave up a long pass.
My goal here isn't to be hypercritical, it's to point out that Penn State made plenty of mistakes, committed plenty of stupid penalties, has plenty of room to improve--will only get better from here--and still blew out a Rutgers team that considers us their biggest rival, that paints a target on our back, that came into Beaver Stadium ready to win this one for Kyle Flood. Penn State played a incomplete (albeit great) game, and still beat the spread by 15 points. If this team improves as its sharp curve suggests, we could hang with Ohio State and Michigan State, and look back at the end of the season wondering how in the hell we lost to Temple.
The special teams has already made that much progress. Not only did Joey Julius and the recently reinstated punter Chris Gulla keep Janarion Grant from doing Janarion Grant things, but they consistently pinned Rutgers deep. Penn State dominated the field position battle, and that's what kept them afloat even during the handful of three-and-outs, while the teams traded punts.
The crowd was that great, too. You'd never know that Penn State came into this game an uninspiring 1-1, that the fanbase had been fraught with malaise. Penn State filled up Beaver Stadium on a rainy night, pulled off the Stripe Out with aplomb, was loud enough to cause at least a pair of false starts and communications issues. The songs and chants were clearly audible throughout the broadcast--and man, it sounded like it would've been a blast to be there.
I guess what I'm trying to say, though with plenty of detours along the way, is that Penn State hasn't peaked yet. And if we do--this might yet become the year we all thought it would be.