Behind Enemy Lines: Penn State Nittany Lions Football edition
Here on The Knight Report we try to provide you guys and girls with the best information possible about Rutgers Athletics. One of the main things we cover is the football team and what better way to know your Scarlet Knights football team than to study their upcoming opponents.
Today, TKR had the chance to talk with Nate Bauer of BWI.Rivals.com or better known as the Rivals-Penn State site to get a better feel for the Nittany Lions ahead of Saturday's matchup.
So I don’t think anybody in preseason thought Penn State would be 1-5 entering this game against Rutgers. What has gone wrong so far for the Nittany Lions this season?
NATE BAUER: This is my updating list of the relevant lowlights: The pandemic hit, spring practice got canceled before it started, thereby pushing back the integration of a coaching staff with 40 percent turnover coming into the season. The summer was spent waffling between playing and not, eventually landing on not in August. Knowing what was coming, All-American linebacker Micah Parsons opted out just as preseason practice started, then stopped, then started again. Stud running back Journey Brown was announced as out with a medical condition that would eventually be revealed in November as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, effectively ending his playing career on the precipice of immense potential. The games finally started in October and within the first offensive possession for Penn State, fellow stud running back Noah Cain was lost for the year with a leg injury. The Nittany Lions would go on to lose that game due to three crippling turnovers, a mental lapse in a crucial fourth-quarter situation by a third-string running back, and some debatable officiating on Indiana's game-tying drive and eventually in overtime. And all of it preceded four consecutive losses to the Buckeyes, Maryland, Nebraska, and Iowa, a stretch during which tight end Pat Freiermuth was also lost to a season-ending surgery as well. And, again, those are just the most notable setbacks.
For those keeping track at home, seven first- or second-string players from the spring two-deep have missed all of the majority of the season, and that number goes up by another six for players who have missed at least three games. That’s about 30 percent and, while individual performances might be the easy culprit to identify, the ramifications of that level of attrition, under these already messy circumstances, are undeniable.
NB: It’s funny just because he’s coming off his quietest game of the season last week in the first win in 2020 for Penn State, but wideout Jahan Dotson has been one of the few highlights for the Nittany Lions’ offense. He’s made big plays at big moments and has earned his spot as one of the Big Ten’s top receivers this season with his 34 receptions for 557 yards and six touchdowns, a number second only to Indiana’s Ty Fryfogle and Purdue’s David Bell.
The second, more recent, breakout of note for Penn State’s offense was last week’s performance of fourth-string-turned-first-string true freshman running back Keyvone Lee. Because of Brown’s absence, then the injury to Cain, and a death in the family that prevented Devyn Ford from playing last weekend, Lee ascended into the starring role at the position and made the most of it. He finished with 134 yards and a score on 22 carries, making it Penn State’s best single-game rushing performance of the season.
One last player worth a mention here is fellow true freshman wideout Parker Washington, who finished with nine receptions for 93 yards against Michigan and now is second on the team in receptions behind Dotson with 30 for 349 yards and three scores.
What about the defense, they also loss their top player in Micah Parsons (opt out). Who are some players to watch out for on this side of the ball?
NB: There just haven’t been a lot of stars on defense for Penn State this season, either by their own limitations or the ability of offenses to gameplan around them. Some of the top graded performers according to Pro Football Focus have been defensive ends Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney, but Oweh has no sacks through six games played even though he’s among the team’s leaders in tackles with 36. Toney leads the team with four sacks, but at 12.0 through six games, Penn State is well off its game-by-game pace that helped produce 40-plus sacks in the past handful of seasons.
Another area that has been especially disappointing for Penn State is the lack of game-changing plays coming out of the secondary with only two interceptions from the unit this season and only one of those coming out of the secondary. Expected to be an area that would take a major step forward in creating more possessions for the offense, improving on normal pass breakups and passes defended with actual turnovers, that simply hasn’t been the case this season.
What’s the overall feeling among the fanbase heading into this game?
NB: I have felt like a pediatrician having to monitor a sick patient this season, knowing that the illness won’t kill the kid but understanding how unpleasant it makes life for them and, consequently, me. No one wants to start the season 0-5, obviously. That’s not the expectation at Penn State, both from the fan base as well as within the program itself, and especially given the optimism coming off what many would acknowledge as a surprise 11-2 season in 2019, to start so poorly was a major letdown.
But it’s just not without reason, and that’s what makes some of the responses to it so overblown. While the second or third level issues that could pop up as a result of this are real and create some concern for the program’s future within the fan base, the bottom line is that you can’t lose your best players and expect to be the same team. And my diagnosis of the response this season has been that rather than adjusting expectations to meet the reality of the moment, that this very much became a developmental year as soon as the avalanche of personnel issues began, it just became anger that the product on the field didn’t match the lead-in.
None of that is to say that Penn State didn’t self-inflict some of its issues even with the players who were available. Certainly, they did. Quarterback Sean Clifford made a boatload of critical errors, so many that he got pulled for them, and the defense didn’t respond well to some of the holes that the offense put it in.
The question now is simply about whether or not this group can manage to repeat its performance from the Michigan game. It wasn’t sexy by any measure, but by simply avoiding making the critical errors that had defined the season to that point, and then coming up with timely execution, it was enough to control a game and finally get a win. If Penn State can do that, and string a few of those types of performances together through the last third of the schedule, even if the final results don’t necessarily correlate directly, it will likely be enough to give the program’s fans optimism toward the future.
Finish this sentence, Penn State win this game if…….
NB: It does exactly what I just said. Let’s not mince words here: These aren’t good football teams, Penn State or Rutgers, conventionally speaking. And in this bizarre season of college football, that’s the reality for all but a handful of teams across the country.
Who is going to do something with what they’ve got?
Greg Schiano has done that this season, even though the record still shows 2-4 for Rutgers. James Franklin and Penn State weren’t able to do that, looking particularly bad in losses to Maryland and Iowa, both at home. By winning at Michigan though, and doing it the way it did, Penn State demonstrated that it’s still present and making the effort.
While this won’t win any awards for insightful analysis, this game is going to be about that. It’s going to be about the team that doesn’t turn the ball over, that successfully establishes a running game, and that doesn’t get gashed for big plays defensively.
If Penn State does those things, something it couldn’t in the first five games but managed in the most recent outing, it will win.
Prediction for the game and why?
NB: Penn State didn’t “find” the formula for a win last weekend at Michigan, but rather finally executed the formula it spent all season messing up. By not handing the ball to their opponent so frequently, they got out of their own way and let the Wolverines make the mistakes that created the environment for a first win of the season.
The approach should and will be the same against a Rutgers team that isn’t flashy but plays hard. Keep possession and break a few tackles against one of PFF’s lowest-graded tackling teams in the Power Five, and force Rutgers to pass the ball, and Penn State can get a second win. Don’t, and it won’t. Penn State 30 / Rutgers 20.