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First Look, Game 11: Penn State vs Rutgers

Penn State aims to build off its bounce-back performance against Wisconsin this weekend when it travels to play another Big Ten opponent. Rutgers, winless in conference action, welcomes the Nittany Lions to campus for a noon kickoff.

Penn State pummeled the Scarlet Knights upon its most recent trip to Piscataway and carries an 11-game win streak in this series. Rutgers made things difficult for the Nittany Lions in their first clash as Big Ten foes (a 13-10 Penn State road victory in coach James Franklin‘s and Rutgers’ 2014 conference debut) but the average margin of victory is 31 points.

The Nittany Lions’ ambitions for conference championship contention didn’t survive a 2-3 midseason stretch but a victory over Wisconsin sets the stage for a positive finish and potential marquee bowl matchup.

“We’re happy to get a win. We’ll enjoy it for the night,” Franklin said Saturday. “(There are) things, obviously, that we have to get cleaned up, there’s no doubt about that. We’re going to enjoy the win, and then obviously wake up (Sunday) morning and get started on our next opponent.”

Rutgers won its season opener vs. Texas State but has since suffered nine straight loses. The Scarlet Knights have taken a step back in 2018 after winning three Big Ten games last year, casting doubt on the long-term future of coach Chris Ash, who took over the program in December 2015 after serving as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator for two seasons.

Let’s take an early glimpse at Penn State’s upcoming opponent.

Opponent: Rutgers
Nickname: Scarlet Knights
Head Coach: Chris Ash (third season at Rutgers; 7-27 record)
2018 record: 1-9 (0-7 in Big Ten)
Last Game: home vs. Michigan (42-7 loss)
Leading Passer: Artur Sitkowski (1,140 yards, 4 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, 49.2% completion)
Leading Receiver:
Raheem Blackshear (332 yards and 2 touchdowns on 40 receptions)
Leading Rusher:
Raheem Blackshear (478 yards and 2 touchdowns on 111 carries)
Defensive Standout:
LB Trevor Morris (87 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks)
2017 record: 4-8 (3-6 in Big Ten)

All-time series between Penn State and Rutgers: Penn State leads 26-2
Penn State’s biggest win vs Rutgers: 39-0 (2016)
Rutgers’ biggest win vs. Penn State: 26-3 (1918)

Last meeting: No. 14 Penn State 35, Rutgers 6 (Nov. 11, 2017)

Penn State rebounded from a pair of difficult road losses (at Ohio State and Michigan State) by returning home and handling business against Rutgers. It wasn’t a flashy performance for the Nittany Lions, who trailed 6-0 more than five minutes into the second quarter, but quarterback Trace McSorley was highly efficient, completing 16 of 21 pass attempts for 214 yards and two touchdowns. He became the program’s all-time leader in touchdown tosses by hitting Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton for scores, and McSorley added another 44 yards and a touchdown as a runner. Though Saquon Barkley managed only 55 offensive yards, he scored two rushing touchdowns. Led by linebacker Jason Cabinda (11 tackles), the defense limited Rutgers to 200 total yards and 10 first downs.

Last meeting at Rutgers: No. 8 Penn State 39, Rutgers 0 (No. 19, 2016)

Penn State used this shutout win as one of its final stepping stones toward the 2016 Big Ten Championship Game. Nasty weather impacted this competition but the Nittany Lions were able to gain control after taking a 9-0 lead into halftime, boosted by third-quarter rushing touchdowns from Saquon Barkley and Andre Robinson. Penn State punctuated a dominant finish  in the fourth quarter when Trace McSorley found Mark Allen for a 27-yard touchdown pass and backup quarterback Tommy Stevens scored on a 12-yard run. The Nittany Lions gained 549 total yards (339 rushing), while Rutgers managed only 87 yards and five first downs. Linebackers Brandon Bell, Cam Brown and Brandon Smith were each involved on sacks.

What the 2018 matchup means

Penn State is looking to build its case as one of college football’s premier three-loss teams while bowl selection committees consider their options. In a bizarre development, only two Power Five programs (LSU and Syracuse) enter Week 12 with two losses, so there are a select few playoff contenders and a crowded pack of teams that need strong finishes in order to secure desirable postseason opportunities.

The Nittany Lions delivered the kind of complete effort vs. Wisconsin that had been scarce during an up-and-down Big Ten schedule. This trip to Piscataway presents another chance for Penn State’s offense to follow up on a positive performance, particularly as freshmen receivers become more involved, and defensive production continues to trend upward.

It’s been a disaster of a season at Rutgers and an upset of this proportion may be the only possible way for Ash and Co. to point toward legitimate progress. The Scarlet Knights kept things close vs. Big Ten West champ Northwestern (18-15) in October and were pretty competitive vs. Wisconsin two weeks ago, but blowout losses to Buffalo and Kansas speak volumes about how far things have fallen. Rutgers fans are focused on the development of freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski, whose 16 interceptions are more than any other FBS player has thrown in 2018.

This shapes up as another wide-margin win for Penn State vs. Rutgers. If that isn’t the case, the Nittany Lions will likely leave New Jersey with more questions than answers.

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