There’s been no let-up at all.
With national talks of Penn State being No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings with a possible conference title game appearance on the horizon, the Nittany Lions (8-2, 6-1 Big Ten) have maintained their focus throughout their six-game winning streak.
The secret? They’ve stuck to the same message, every single week.
“We’ve seen the success, and we’ve seen what it can do for us,” Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki said. “We’ve completely bought into the mindset of focus and locked in, one game at a time, one week at a time. I think we’re going to continue to do that, and we’ll be happy with the results.”
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The Nittany Lions hope that’ll help with Saturday’s 8 p.m. game at Rutgers (2-8, 0-7).
When Penn State needed it most, the offense clicked. In last weekend’s 45-31 win over Indiana, the Nittany Lions offense scored 24 points in the game’s final 16 minutes.
That was impressive, but other points throughout the game were concerning. In the first three quarters, Penn State had seven drives of four plays or less, including a trio of three-and-outs, two interceptions and a turnover on downs.
Those seven drives combined to yield 28 yards.
Penn State head coach James Franklin believes starting out hot can breed consistency on offense, and that’s what he wants against the Scarlet Knights.
“They’re going to come out being aggressive in how they call the game, the decisions they make and how their players play,” Franklin said Tuesday. “We want to start fast each week. ... It’s the best thing to do to give us the best chance to be successful.”
Saquon Barkley will be hoping he can get more space to work with. As the Hoosiers stacked the box, Barkley was held to 58 yards on 33 carries (1.8 yards per attempt) at Indiana.
A patchwork offensive line won’t necessarily help that cause, and being tasked with Rutgers defensive end and NFL prospect Darius Hamilton will only add to that difficulty.
“He’s big, strong and physical, and obviously we have some changes up front, and he’s the guy we’ve identified,” Franklin said. “You have better have hands inside, you better have leverage, you better use your technique because he can overpower you. There’s no doubt about it.”
It should help, however, that the Nittany Lions are facing a porous defense. Rutgers ranks 116th nationally out of 128 FBS schools in scoring defense, allowing 38.0 points per game. That’s seventh-worst among Power 5 conference teams and second-worst in the Big Ten behind only Purdue (38.4 points per game).
As a reminder, Penn State hung 62 points on the Boilermakers.
Factor in Penn State’s big-play ability (quarterback Trace McSorley leads the nation with 15.93 yards per completion) and the Nittany Lions could be in for a rout.
Much like their defense, the Scarlet Knights have done themselves no favors on offense. Rutgers has struggled mightily with the ball, managing only 296.1 yards per game, which ranks second-worst in the country.
Furthermore, the Scarlet Knights’ offense has been anemic in the Big Ten. They’ve averaged only 11.3 points per game in seven conference contests this season.
It was never going to be easy for Rutgers this season. The Scarlet Knights are in year one of rebuilding their program under head coach Chris Ash, and they lost their most dynamic player to injury, wide receiver and returner Janarion Grant. The senior averaged 163.8 all-purpose yards per game in his first four contests before incurring an ankle injury during Rutgers’ game against Iowa.
That all being said, Penn State’s defense shouldn’t have much to worry about. The Nittany Lions have allowed only 20.8 points per contest in their past five games, and Penn State’s defense and special teams have combined to force 13 turnovers in that span.
Meanwhile, Rutgers quarterback Chris Laviano, who threw two interceptions last year against Penn State and has played poorly this season, was supplanted by junior Giovanni Rescigno. The Michigan native hasn’t had much better luck, throwing five interceptions in four games.
Freshman running back and kickoff man Miles Sanders broke off a 31-yard, game-opening return against Indiana, and he’s come close to breaking one. Rutgers has only allowed 18.09 yards per return, though, this season, ranking ninth nationally.
Freshman punter Blake Gillikin averaged 38.8 yards per attempt against the Hoosiers, and placekicker Tyler Davis’ confidence didn’t waver in Bloomington, either. He drilled a key 39-yard field goal at Indiana, and has now connected on 16 of 18 attempts this season.
The only two misses have come on blocks, and Davis hasn’t really let much get to him — even the Penn State Blue Band. At Tuesday night’s practice, Davis lined up for a field goal with members of the Blue Band playing around him, trying to distract the redshirt junior.
It didn’t work, though. Not much gets to him, but Rutgers blocked a Penn State field goal in 2014, so that’s worth looking out for.