James Franklin paced down the sideline, yelling into his headset after Miles Sanders fumbled with a minute to go. But there wasn’t much cheering. Most Rutgers fans filed out of their metal bleachers an hour earlier. Only groans from the thousands of Penn State supporters echoed in a half-empty stadium.
The Nittany Lions came out on top Saturday. But it didn’t feel like anyone won watching Penn State’s offense sputter to a 20-7 victory. And it certainly didn’t look as if Franklin’s squad deserved to be in the New Year’s Six conversation. It was another win — but, in some ways, it was another disappointment.
As 28-point favorites, Penn State labored through a game best watched with a lager in hand. Trace McSorley became the Nittany Lions’ all-time leader in wins, but completed just 17 of 37 passes for 183 yards. Sanders logged a career-high 27 carries and managed only 88 yards. Meanwhile, wrong routes and drops plagued the wideouts yet again.
Now, Brent Pry’s defense nearly pitched a shutout. Shareef Miller, Yetur Gross-Matos, Robert Windsor and Kevin Givens combined for seven tackles for loss, and the secondary picked off college football’s worst starting quarterback twice. No complaints there.
But the offense was anemic yet again. And this time, it happened against Rutgers.
“We had a lot of respect for them on tape in how they played and how hard they played,” Franklin said of Rutgers’ defense after the game. “We didn’t feel like we were going to come in and this was going to be an easy game for us. We thought it was going to be a battle.”
Franklin, his staff and his players might be the only people in the tri-state area who felt that way. Rutgers and Penn State fans both predicted a blowout. The pregame talk in the press box was not if but when the Nittany Lions would cover.
Why? Because the Scarlet Knights — whose lone win in 2018 came 77 days ago against Texas State — own a hapless defense. Chris Ash’s team ranked 123rd in Bill Connelly’s defensive S&P+ ratings entering Saturday, third-worst among Power 5 teams. The Scarlet Knights let up an average of 34.1 points in their previous seven Big Ten games and allow 6.3 plays of 20 yards or more per game. Penn State managed four.
In truth, McSorley and the passing game had more missed opportunities than explosive plays. On the first snap, he threw a ball downfield well behind speedster KJ Hamler. If McSorley hit him in stride, it’s a 72-yard touchdown. Later in the half, Hamler was wide open for a 40-plus gain, but the fifth-year senior missed him high.
“That’s on me,” McSorley said shaking his head. “I just need to be more accurate. … That’s a consistent theme throughout this year.”
Franklin agreed, calling the passing game struggles “a little bit of a storyline” throughout the season. McSorley has yet to throw for 300 yards in a game this season; he hit that number 10 times in 2016 and 2017. The preseason Heisman Trophy candidate is averaging 181.38 yards per game through the air in Big Ten play, a far cry from his conference-leading 275.0 average a year ago.
“We have to get that fixed for this week,” Franklin said of the passing game, “and we have to get that fixed moving forward.”
Moments later, though, the coach brought up Rutgers’ 18-15 loss to Northwestern as an example of the Scarlet Knights’ stingy defense. But Rutgers is not a hard code to crack. This is the same team that gave up 375 passing yards to Maryland, got trampled by Illinois for 330 rushing yards and lost to Kansas — yes, Kansas — by 41 points.
A week after dominating Wisconsin, Saturday was an opportunity for Penn State to win convincingly. It was a chance to maybe impress the College Football Playoff committee — the group of individuals that has the No. 14 Nittany Lions on the fringe of New Year’s Six consideration.
Instead, Penn State’s attack looked like a shell of its former self in a meager 13-point win against the Big Ten’s punching bag.
“It’s frustrating,” Hamler said softly. “We know what we’re capable of as an offense.”