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Penn State at Rutgers: Game Preview

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The Nittany Lions go for two in a row.

Rutgers v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Nittany Lions look for its second consecutive win to help bounce from a historically poor start to the season, while Rutgers looks for its third Big Ten win of the season after going two seasons without a conference victory.

Penn State (1-5) vs. Rutgers (2-4)

Kickoff: Noon, SHI Stadium, Piscataway, NJ

The Betting Line: Penn State -10.5

TV: FS1 - Matt Followill (play-by-play), Matt Millen (analyst), Olivia Dekker (sideline)

Weather: Yet another clear and nice day to greet the Nittany Lions. The high will be in the low 50s with some sunshine.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 57-28, 7th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 81-43, 10th Year

VS. RUTGERS: 6-0

Greg Schiano:

RUTGERS RECORD: 70-71, 12th Year

OVERALL RECORD: Same

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

FUN FACTS

Penn State has won its last 13 games against Rutgers, and holds a 28-2 series advantage...This is just the second game ever played by Penn State on December 5...the other contest was a 58-0 beatdown of Haverford in 1891...the win clinched the Pennsylvania Intercollegiate Football Association crown in the first year of the conference’s history.

RUTGERS OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

It’s not determined who will be under center for Rutgers on Saturday as starting quarterback Noah Vedral is trying to recover from an injury. He traveled with the team to Purdue last week, but was in obvious pain as he attempted to throw in warm-ups. That led to Arthur Sitkowski getting the nod. If you recall, Sitkowki was the team’s starter for most of 2018 and has played sparingly since then. In his only appearance against Penn State, Sitkowski was three-of-seven for 18 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, and was sacked three times. He did fare much better last week in leading the team to victory over the Boilermakers as he completed 19-of-28 attempts for 152 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. It was his second appearance of the season after going 9-of-13 against the Buckeyes.

Verdal has been efficient, but unspectacular. He’s completing an impressive 64.2 percent of passes, but has as many interceptions as touchdown tosses (eight apiece). He’s had two three-interception games, both losses to Illinois and Indiana. He is the more mobile of the two, and can break off a long run from time-to-time although he mostly stays in the pocket.

Bo Melton is the Scarlet Knights top wideout, and can do some damage with his combination of speed and excellent hands. Purdue was mostly able to keep him in check, but had been coming off a three-game stretch with 345 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Shameen Jones is another dangerous option who has really come on the last two weeks, with 215 yards and two scores against Michigan and Purdue. Aron Cruickshank is an effective possession receiver and is a major asset in keeping drives alive.

Isaiah Pacheco is back at running back for the Scarlet Knights, and is averaging 4.5 yards per carry with 390 yards on the season. He had his best game of the season against Illinois with 133 rushing yards on 20 carries. He also produced 68 yards on just seven carries against the Buckeyes, a number that would have been much higher if the team was not forced to abandon the run so early in the contest.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. RUTGERS DEFENSE

Sean Clifford returned to the starting lineup against Michigan, and responded with his best game of the season by far, completing 60.7 percent of his passes with 236 all-purpose yards and a rushing touchdown. It was also his first game with no turnovers.

Clifford should be back under center on Saturday, but Will Levis will still see the field, especially in short yardage situations where he can plow through defenders.

Running back Devyn Ford will return to the lineup after missing the Michigan game due to a death in the family. Ford had been the starting running back since Noah Cain’s injury in week one, but true freshman Keyvone Lee made a statement with 134 rushing yards and a touchdown, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors - the first time a Nittany Lions has been awarded a weekly honor by the conference in 2020.

Tight end Theo Johnson is another true freshman to watch as he sees his role increased with Pat Freiermuth out for the season, and most likely heading to the NFL this spring. While Johnson has just two catches on the season, he has loads of athleticism and potential and could break out at any time. He’s also proven to be an outstanding blocker for someone who just graduated high school.

While Rutgers defense is improving, they are still ranked between in the lower third, and in some cases, near the bottom nationally. Overall, they are yielding 430 yards and 35.7 points per game.

Olakunle Fatukasi is an aggressive linebacker with fantastic instincts, leading the Big Ten in tackles by a wide margin. He is an overall disruptive playmaker, leading the team with nine TFLs, and two sacks, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. Linebacker Mohamed Toure can be difficult to handle off the edge, and has three sacks and two forced fumbles on the season. Defensive end CJ Onyechi also knows how to get to the quarterback and will challenge a line that has struggled with pass protection at times.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Valentino Ambrosia isn’t just a fantastic name or weird dessert, but he’s also an outstanding kicker for the Scarlet Knights. He is five-of-six after taking over kicking duties three weeks ago, although his one miss came at a crucial time in overtime against Michigan. Adam Korsak is an extremely consistent punter and one of the Big Ten’s best, with an average of 42.6 yards per punt with regular kicks over 50 yards.

Jordan Stout will need to bounce back after two kickoffs that went out of bounds against Michigan. He’ll need to get back to his normal routine of blasting kickoffs out of the end zone, as the Scarlet Knights have a very dangerous kick returner in Aron Cruickshank, who had a 100-yard return touchdown against Michigan.

PREDICTION

Penn State-31, Rutgers-23

Make no doubt about it - Greg Schiano is transforming Rutgers once again. The Scarlet Knights appeared as they had no business in the Big Ten, or any P5 conference during the past several years. Heck, they probably would have had a losing record in the MAC. While Rutgers still has a ways to go in closing the talent gap with the rest of the conference, they are a much more competitive team already. Unless you’re Ohio State, you can no longer sleepwalk/shoot yourself in the foot constantly and still expect to come out with a win.

Fortunately, Penn State is coming off its first game of the season when they played a full four quarters and finally limited mistakes. They also have turned to a nucleus of true freshman and other new faces who have seemed to bring a new energy that was lacking during the 0-5 start. Rutgers will be playing with some extra juice in Schiano’s first-ever meeting with the Nittany Lions, but the boys in blue and white should come out with their heads on straight and ready to build off the victory in Ann Arbor.

Clifford has another quality outing, tossing for 240 yards and touchdowns to Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington. Devyn Ford and Keyvone Lee each contribute 70 yards and a score on the ground, and Will Levis helps with a few crucial third and fourth down conversions.

On defense, Brandon Smith continues his progression with his best game to date, leading the team with nine tackles and forcing a fumble. PJ Mustipher halts the Rutgers offense with three TFLs and a sack, while Adisa Isaac contribute two sacks of his own.