Penn State (2-0) and Rutgers (2-0) will open Big Ten play against each other at a sold-out High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway, N.J. on Saturday. Which team has the edge position-by-position?
Rutgers has loads of experience up front where five starters, who have combined for 133 games played with 109 starts, return. That hasn’t always translated to success as Rutgers was held to less than 100 rushing yards in six of its final 10 games last season. But the Scarlet Knights’ front five — left tackle Keith Lumpkin, left guard Kaleb Johnson, center Betim Bujari, right guard Chris Muller and right tackle Taj Alexander — have seen recent improvement. By grinding out a 38-carry, 109-yard performance against FCS foe Howard, the Rutgers o-line got its second-straight 100-plus-yard rushing game in a year. The Scarlet Knights hadn’t gone over the century mark in back-to-back games since Weeks 2 and 3 against Norfolk State and Eastern Michigan last season. This inconsistent group will try to do it for a third time against an aggressive Penn State front. Inconsistency is a theme with Penn State, too. Although it’s to be expected as right guard Brendan Mahon, center Angelo Mangiro, right guard Brian Gaia and right tackle Andrew Nelson will be starting just their third game together. Penn State’s running game has shown flashes here and there but overall, Penn State has allowed 12 tackles for loss and hasn’t scored a rushing touchdown in seven quarters. Advantage: Push
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Keep your eyes very closely on Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova. Penn State defenders will be doing the same as the Scarlet Knights signal caller is adept at fakes. Nova runs an offense that relies heavily on misdirection and his ability to sell play-action passes. He throws well on the run and spreads the ball around. He hit nine different targets in Week 2 and has six touchdowns including 78- and 69-yarders on his line. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg has taken plenty of chances with the football and has occasionally cost his offense possession time and scoring opportunities. His four interceptions tie him for the league lead in in that category. He’s also been highly productive — he also leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game with 386 — and seems to always have a few big throws in his right arm. He’s also scrambling well, picking up yardage when pockets have broken down. Penn State quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne said he believes backups Trace McSorley and Michael O’Connor are ready if needed. Advantage: Penn State
All three of Penn State’s ball carriers were good in spurts in Week 2. Bill Belton caught a touchdown pass out of the backfield, Akeel Lynch got some rhythm on a few strong Wildcat carries and Zach Zwinak brought a quiet Beaver Stadium crowd to a roar with a powerful second-half run that went for 18 yards with five Akron Zips hanging on his back. But for the most part, Penn State’s running backs haven’t had much room to get going and haven’t done enough on their own to create space when holes are closing fast or aren’t there. Rutgers seems to have a beast in Paul James. The 6-foot, 205-pound senior isn’t massive but accelerates well in space, breaks tackles proficiently and is a threat in nearly every formation to catch passes out of the backfield. James leads the nation with six touchdowns. Desmon Peoples can literally get lost in the shuffle of bigger teammates in front of him. The 5-foot-8, 175-pound back is quick on the perimeter and could be used to gain the edge. Advantage: Push
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Penn State’s gotten some nice contributions from Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton who have operated like wideouts 1A and 1B. Hamilton has 18 catches for 234 yards and Lewis has 14 catches for 271 yards. Meanwhile, it seems to be a dead heat between true freshmen Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall for the No. 3 spot. Tight end Jesse James has become the Nittany Lions’ true third receiving option. His nine catches lead all tight ends that will play in this game and is coming off a two-touchdown game. Kyle Carter made a nice leaping grab against Akron but overall has been quiet. Rutgers junior Leonte Carroo is the Scarlet Knights’ deep threat while Janarion Grant provides another target. John Tsimis is the Scarlet Knights’ wingback and has gotten open for big plays this season with six catches for 80 yards and touchdowns of 19 and 29 yards. Tight end Tyler Kroft has not been much of a factor. Advantage: Penn State
Rutgers’ defensive line hasn’t been dominant, but the Scarlet Knights have some athletes and size up front. Ends David Milewski and Djwany Mera and junior tackle Darius Hamilton are all 6-foot-4 or taller and have the reaches to disrupt passing lanes and obstruct sight lines. Milewski had a big game in Week 2 with six tackles, two for losses, a sack and a forced fumble and is a team captain for the Scarlet Knights. Penn State is deepest along its defensive front where ends Deion Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan and tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel will start. The Nittany Lions rotated a second full line in last week where Carl Nassib and Brad Bars manned the ends and Parker Cothren and Tyrone Smith lined up inside. Tarow Barney got limited action for Penn State last week at tackle giving the Nittany Lions just one more option. Advantage: Penn State
Once seen as a weakness, Penn State’s linebackers have blossomed nicely in the first two weeks. Mike Hull hasn’t missed a beat since switching to the middle spot and is second in the Big Ten with 22 tackles. Brandon Bell and Nyeem Wartman have been solid and have been able to use their athleticism in defensive coordinator Bob Shoop’s blitz packages. Adrian Amos has played well in the box as the team’s STAR backer. Two of Rutgers’ top tacklers are defensive backs, which isn’t ideal. Meanwhile, sophomore Steve Longa leads the Scarlet Knights’ linebackers with 15 tackles. Advantage: Penn State
Rutgers has made a habit of rotating its defensive backs and has yet to start the same group in consecutive games dating back to the start of last season. In that time, 12 different players have started in the makeshift Rutgers secondary. Anthony Cioffi and Gareef Glashen will likely start at corner for the Scarlet Knights while Deion Stephenson and Lorenzo Waters will handle safety duties. Converted running back Justin Goodwin is also in the mix at corner but missed the last game with an injury. He and Glashen have the team’s two interceptions. Overall, Rutgers inconsistent personnel has led to some lousy play. The Scarlet Knights are giving up 350 yards per game. Yikes. Penn State has done much better and seems to have a solid foursome with corners Jordan Lucas and Trevor Williams and safeties Ryan Keiser and Adrian Amos. Meanwhile, safeties Malik Golden and Jesse Della Valle have played roles while Grant Haley has already earned playing time at corner. Expect true freshman Christian Campbell to get in the mix as well. Advantage: Penn State
Penn State’s punt return abilities have been handcuffed by solid opposing punting teams in the first two weeks. In that time, Penn State has returned three of a possible nine punts (two touchbacks) for just 17 yards. Sam Ficken was only needed for kickoffs and extra points against Akron but hit all his marks in those areas and has proven himself capable of making clutch kicks in big environments. No program has run special teams as aggressively nor been as successful as Rutgers since 2009. The Scarlet Knights have blocked an FBS-best 37 kicks since then, which is 11 more than second-place Fresno State. Advantage: Rutgers
This one already has the feel of a regional rivalry in the making. High Point Solutions Stadium will definitely be rocking as the Scarlet Knights’ Big Ten debut is arguably the most anticipated game in Rutgers history. The Rutgers athletic department announced the game as a sellout back on Aug. 28. Rutgers players have been waiting for this type of environment under the lights and if they can embrace their competitive emotions out of the gate, could have the early steam. Advantage: Rutgers