With nothing but a few hundred Penn State fans filling the seats, bunched in tight along the Nittany Lion sideline, High Point Solutions Stadium was a hollow sight late Saturday night.
As unrelenting rain and sleet fell to the bleachers and field, the Scarlet Knights bumbled and fumbled their way through the second half as the Nittany Lions, plagued by a sluggish opening two quarters, came alive when they needed to most.
And now it all comes down to the final weekend of the regular season.
The No. 8 Nittany Lions dismantled Rutgers, 39-0, extending their winning streak to seven games and moving them one step closer to a Big Ten Championship game berth.
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With the expected victory in the bag — the Nittany Lions opened as 28-point favorites — the attention of Penn State (9-2, 7-1) now turns to Michigan State next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Beaver Stadium. If the Nittany Lions trump Sparty and Ohio State defeats Michigan in “The Game,” Penn State will win the Big Ten East division and head to Indianapolis for the conference title game.
But before setting their sights on Michigan State, the Nittany Lions had to get through Rutgers, which they did with relative ease.
Penn State outgained the Scarlet Knights (2-9, 0-8) by a total of 549 to 87. Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley, who exited the game in the third quarter, had more yards himself (92 yards on 16 carries, 25 receiving yards).
In Penn State’s first road Big Ten shutout win since 2006, Rutgers converted on only 1 of 14 third downs while recording five total first downs. The Nittany Lions had 25.
“The team continues to grow,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We’re getting better.”
Despite the lopsided scoreline and team statistics, the game was far from a blowout early on. Penn State led 9-0 at halftime after its offense stalled three times in the red zone, having to settle for a trio of Tyler Davis field goals.
It was frustrating for the Nittany Lions, no doubt, but they didn’t lose faith. They knew six points instead of three would come.
“We just had to keep grinding and keep pushing it,” tight end Mike Gesicki said.
Playing through gusting winds with an inconsistent-at-best offense, the Nittany Lions weren’t doing themselves any favors.
But they had been there before. Penn State was tied on the road at halftime to the likes of Purdue and Indiana; while Franklin might not enjoy labeling it this way, the Nittany Lions are a second-half team.
As Rutgers muddled through the first half with 66 yards, there was no need to freak out.
“The guys responded well,” Franklin said. “We’ve had a number of situations this year where some teams or coaching staffs would panic. We’ve just been in this situation so many times that the players believe in each other … We’re going to battle for four quarters.”
Normally battles are met with opposition. In the second half, the Scarlet Knights put up little resistance.
Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson blocked a punt after a three-and-out opened the third quarter for Rutgers. Garrett Taylor fell on the blocked kick at Rutgers’ 10-yard line, and three plays later Barkley punched it in for a one-yard score.
Davis’ fourth field goal of the evening, along with a short score by running back Andre Robinson, propelled Penn State to a 25-0 lead at the end of the third quarter.
At that time, precipitation and a poor showing by the home side funneled fans out of the stadium. Penn State supporters flooded the Rutgers student section, only to be ushered out a few minutes later.
It was over for the Scarlet Knights, and there was still 15 minutes left to go.
“I want to thank our fans, they’re unreal,” Franklin said. “I would describe those weather conditions as less than ideal, and our fans were unbelievable. Right there to the end. I’ve never been a part of anything like it, and our guys feed off of that.”
Penn State polished off the fourth quarter in style.
Nittany Lions’ 5-foot-6 running back Mark Allen scored on a 27-yard pass from quarterback Trace McSorley, who had 210 passing and 55 rushing yards, and backup signal-caller Tommy Stevens put the Nittany Lions up 39-0 with a 12-yard designed run up the middle of Rutgers’ defense.
As the offense clicked (333 second-half yards), the defense did its job, as well. Guided by a stable of defensive linemen, the Nittany Lions racked up 11 tackles for loss and two sacks.
Penn State linebackers and New Jersey natives Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda — in on seemingly every play — tallied five and three tackles, respectively.
Cabinda actually came up to defensive end Evan Schwan in the locker room after the game, commending the front four for their work and joking that he only had to make a few stops.
“The ball wasn’t spitting out to his end,” Schwan said. “I’m really proud of what we did today.”
Schwan, a senior, started to think about Michigan State as he fielded questions from the reporters. The 6-foot-6 Harrisburg native emphasized that the Nittany Lions’ focus couldn’t stray because of next Saturday’s Big Ten implications. They have to approach Sparty just as they have every other team this season.
But when asked about Penn State’s current position — one win away from a 10-2 season and a possible conference title game berth — it was hard to deny the situation’s improbability when he arrived at Penn State in 2012.
“I never thought as a freshman with the sanctions we had that we’d be in position we are now,” Schwan said.
“That’s what you dream of,” the redshirt sophomore quarterback said. “For a lot of these guys who stuck with this program, when people would say, ‘You’re not going to get that opportunity. You’re not going to get the chance to play in a bowl game or any postseason play.’ It’s one of those things. It is surreal … It’s really incredible.”
Of course, McSorley continued, recognizing that he and his teammates can only control what they can control.
And now that Rutgers is in the rear view mirror, that’s beating Michigan State.