Following postgame handshakes at midfield, Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead floated with the same wide smile his players wore as the Nittany Lions made their way toward the south end zone. Moorhead, nodding his head as he passed a school administrator, was savoring this one.
“Back on track, baby,” Moorhead said. “Back on track.”
Behind him, the Beaver Stadium scoreboard read 35-6 — an expected blowout by Penn State over Rutgers. Right? Well, sort of.
Saturday afternoon was a weird one for the No. 14 Nittany Lions (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten). They beat Rutgers (4-6, 3-4) and did so handily, but were sluggish from the get-go in all three phases of the game. The 29-point victory — after back-to-back gut-wrenching road losses to Ohio State and Michigan State — was unsettling and yet encouraging at the same time.
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“We started off a little bit slow,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said at the media room dais. “I thought we were good about being patient on offense, defense and special teams. We made some subtle adjustments and kept pecking away at it. ... I would say this game was probably more similar to how last year’s game played out than maybe this year’s games.
“At the end of the day, what’s important is the final result.”
Indeed, that’s all that matters. Penn State is a couple triumphs over Nebraska and Maryland away from securing a 10-win season. That still means something.
But as Franklin alluded to, Saturday kind of felt like the Nittany Lions’ win over Rutgers at HighPoint Solutions Stadium in 2016. Penn State ousted the Scarlet Knights 39-0, but it wasn’t crisp or overly dominating.
Saturday’s odd feeling can be attributed to the way Penn State started. On the opening kickoff, Rutgers pooch-kicked it to avoid a Saquon Barkley special. But the ball fell between Barkley and the up-backs. It bounced around for a couple seconds that surely felt like a lifetime for those in the metal Beaver Stadium bleachers, and Rutgers recovered.
Instead of Barkley and the offense hitting the field, primed to dunk on Rutgers, Penn State’s defense was thrust into action.
“We as a team were a little shell-shocked,” quarterback Trace McSorley said.
Added Franklin: “Not the way you want to start the game.”
Not at all. The Scarlet Knights connected on a field goal, and their counterparts didn’t respond at all. Penn State’s defense was plagued by weak arm tackles, leading to an early second-quarter field goal, while the offense managed 24 yards and two punts on its first couple drives.
“We weren’t connecting,” wide receiver Juwan Johnson said. “We weren’t ourselves.”
Toward the end of the first quarter, McSorley chatted on the sideline with wideout DaeSean Hamilton, offensive linemen Steven Gonzalez and Connor McGovern, and a few others. The Nittany Lions needed to focus.
“We just have to go out and play confident,” McSorley said at the time. “We can’t let that (opening kickoff) factor in the rest of the game. We have to cut that off, put our foot in the ground, stop this slide and get moving forward.”
After that discussion, the Nittany Lions bounced back. After Rutgers went up 6-0 early in the second stanza, McSorley found Mike Gesicki for a 19-yard gain, followed by a 25-yard connection to Hamilton and a 20-yard touchdown run by the quarterback.
“And we just kind of blew up from there,” Johnson said.
Penn State cured the hangover. From that point on, the Nittany Lion offense rolled to four more touchdowns while the defense didn’t allow a first down until the backups came in late in the fourth quarter.
Penn State and its fans needed patience, sure. The first quarter was ugly, drawing plenty of reaction from Twitter. Rutgers was actually winning. Until it wasn’t. Until McSorley got the offense straightened out. Until Brent Pry’s unit started playing like the top-10 unit it is.
Penn State’s start was less-than-ideal on Saturday — but the resolve and result, as Franklin said, are all that mattered after a pair of disappointing performances.
“It just gets us back on our feet,” Hamilton said. “We got our momentum back, and we got our groove back. We were able to make plays, and we’re going to carry this into the next few weeks.”