Part of what made last week’s game against Michigan State such a must-win for Penn State was that it was the Nittany Lions’ last chance to prove themselves against a quality opponent. The three teams remaining on the schedule will all give Penn State their best shots, but unless we see some drastic changes, these are games that most fans will expect the Lions to win handily.
That’s why it’s important for James Franklin to keep his group focused. Even though the College Football Playoff will certainly have to wait until next year, this 2017 group still has a chance to play in a fun bowl game against a prestigious opponent. Slipping up against Rutgers, Nebraska, or Maryland would be very disappointing after these Lions battled hard on the road against Ohio State and Michigan State.
Rutgers has to be feeling good with three wins in its last four games, but Chris Ash’s team has been easily handled by Michigan and Ohio State this season. The Scarlet Knights and their fans would love to see the squad show more mettle against one of the Big Ten’s most talented teams.
For more on the Rutgers perspective on Saturday’s matchup, we tracked down Aaron Breitman of SB Nation’s Rutgers blog, On the Banks. Thanks go out to Aaron for answering our questions.
Black Shoe Diaries: After the Scarlet Knights lost to Eastern Michigan in their second game of the season, many critics wondered if the team would win a Big Ten game all season. However, Chris Ash has since led his team to three conference victories in its last four games. Is this mostly due to Ash switching from Kyle Bolin to Giovanni Rescigno under center, or has Rutgers improved in other ways as well?
On the Banks: That's certainly part of it, as a real key with Rescigno helping to turn around the season has been minimizing turnovers. He has thrown just one interception in four starts and the offense has committed just two turnovers in the past three games. The offensive line has had some positive moments in winning the battle of the trenches against Illinois and Maryland. They've also given up the least amount of sacks in the Big Ten. Another factor has been the defense continuing to improve as the season has progressed, even as key players have been lost to injury. Special teams play has shown the biggest improvement overall after an atrocious performance last season. The specialists have all been upgraded and grad-transfer punter Ryan Anderson has been a revelation. The kickoff coverage is also tops in the conference so far this season.
With all that being said, I think Ash and the staff did a great job of resetting things during the bye week and the players have bought in. Of course, the schedule has provided winnable games, but the fact is Rutgers is seizing the opportunity and coming through in ways they didn't last season. The offense is making fewer mistakes and producing more big plays. The defense has been successful with a bend-but-don't-break approach. Special teams has been a major factor in a positive way with field position as well. Overall, the team is getting better in every area and it says a lot about the culture of the program that it’s rebounded from the 1-4 start the way it has.
BSD: With fewer than 20 pass attempts and 110 passing yards in every game he’s played this year, Rescigno doesn’t put fear into opposing secondaries, but he is more mobile than Bolin. How has Rescigno helped the running game since taking over the starting job?
OTB: Bolin wasn't productive enough in the passing game to make up for his lack of mobility and a change had to be made. When healthy, Rescigno can be effective in the run game. He showed that at times last season before he suffered minor, but nagging injuries that limited him. In his first start against Illinois this season, he flashed that same mobility, but he can be reckless when running and suffered a minor knee injury. It severely limited him against Purdue and Michigan. However, last week against Maryland he looked a lot healthier and showed it by running for 54 yards and a touchdown on six carries. Gio is not going to have many games passing for 300-plus yards, but he can make certain throws rolling out of the pocket. Overall, he just has a better skill set than Bolin and the offense has benefited ever since.
BSD: Gus Edwards has come over from Miami and become the clear leader of the Rutgers backfield. However, freshman Raheem Blackshear is averaging nearly seven yards per carry thanks to a couple of big games against Morgan State and Illinois. Should he be seeing a larger share of the carries going forward?
OTB: Edwards has gotten better as the season has progressed and is the clear lead back. Robert Martin is also a senior and has rushed for over 2,000 yards in his career. He has the second most carries in the backfield and ran well against Maryland last week. As for Blackshear, he is a speedy back with big-play capability. He caught the game-winning 35-yard touchdown on a wheel route in the victory over Purdue. However, he missed the Michigan game due to injury and was given just three carries last week against Maryland. If he is healthy for this game, Rutgers will absolutely look to work him in more. He is a good change-of-pace back and compliments Edwards and Martin well. Rutgers desperately needs more playmakers and Blackshear has had his moments and has shown he can be the most explosive player on offense when healthy.
BSD: The Knights did a great job against Maryland’s Ty Johnson last weekend, holding him to 41 yards on 10 carries with none of his rushes going for longer than six yards. Who was most responsible for the defensive effort, and can Rutgers do something similar to limit Saquon Barkley on Saturday?
OTB: The defense was very focused on stopping the run early on and it certainly set the tone in shutting down Johnson. Defensive lineman Kevin Wilkins had a great game and had to be double-teamed at times. The linebackers, particularly Deonte Roberts and Trevor Morris, did a great job of not breaking down against the run and making tackles.
The defensive line overall has had some moments this season in shutting down the opponent's run game, but they have a tendency to wear down in the second half due to a lack of depth. That is a concern against Penn State, as Barkley could find a lot of running room as the game progresses. How much pressure they can put on the offensive line on a consistent basis in this game will obviously be a big factor.
BSD: Kiy Hester has three interceptions this season, with two going back for touchdowns. What makes him such a playmaker on defense and how has the Rutgers pass defense responded after getting torched by Ohio State a month ago?
OTB: It's been very encouraging to see the secondary have reserve players step up this season. All-Big Ten cornerback Blessuan Austin tore his ACL against Nebraska and three-year starter at free safety, Saquon Hampton, hasn't played since the loss to Ohio State. Strong safety Kiy Hester has battled injuries as well, but continues to battle and make plays in the back of the defense. He is a big hitter and has a nose for the football. Hester should actually have three interceptions returned for touchdowns, as he dropped one against Michigan that had pick-six written all over it.
As for the rest of the secondary, K.J. Gray has stepped up in the absence of Hampton and has two interceptions. Backup cornerback Damon Hayes has done well replacing Austin and also has two interceptions. The biggest surprise has been baseball star and last season's leading receiver, Jawuan Harris. He switched to defense during the bye week and led the team in tackles in the next game, a win over Illinois. Harris epitomizes the team-first attitude of the current players and has filled a void in the secondary. This unit was considered the strength of the defense before the season and despite losing two starters, that belief remains.
BSD: The Knights are 30-point underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for Rutgers?
OTB: I think this is a very difficult game for Rutgers. Penn State will be looking for blood on homecoming and after two heartbreaking losses, it's certainly bad timing to travel to Happy Valley. I do think the Rutgers defense has a chance to be disruptive with the offensive line of Penn State and cause some problems. Chris Ash and this team really have nothing to lose in this game and should play with confidence early on. Depth and overall talent on the roster heavily favors Penn State and ultimately it’ll wear down Rutgers in the second half after it puts up a respectable fight. Penn State 38 Rutgers 17
Thanks again to Aaron for taking the time to help with this story. For more on Rutgers athletics all year round, be sure to check out On the Banks!