Penn State Football

Penn State football: Rutgers hopes to make strong first impression

Rutgers coach Kyle Flood may be preparing his team for its first Big Ten clash like he does for any other game.

But he also understands the significance of the Scarlet Knights’ matchup against Penn State this Saturday at 8 p.m. in Piscataway, N.J.

“First impressions in life matter,” Flood said. “This is our opportunity to make a first impression in the Big Ten conference and we get a chance to do it at home on (Big Ten Network), playing against our neighbors to the west.

“I think when those opportunities arise in life, you don’t want to downplay them.”

It’s clear this isn’t just another game for Rutgers as it will make its Big Ten debut in front of a sold-out crowd at High Point Solutions Stadium.

The Scarlet Knights (2-0) opened the season with wins over Washington State and Howard, averaging 39.5 points per game, good for second in the conference. The Rutgers defense has allowed 31.5 points per game, ranking 13th in the Big Ten.

Penn State (2-0) is coming off wins over Central Florida and Akron. The Nittany Lions rank fourth in total offense (468 yards per game) and own the top passing game in the league (386.5). But that production has resulted in just 23.5 points per game (13th in the conference).

Penn State coach James Franklin said he and his staff don’t treat conference play as more important than their nonconference matchups.

Their focus will remain on the upcoming opponent each week.

“Our approach to this game is going to be exactly the same as it was for Central Florida, exactly the same way it was for Akron,” Franklin said. “It will not change.

“We are just as motivated in this game as we were for Akron and we are just as motivated for this game as we were for Central Florida.”

Franklin said he’s seen confidence and consistency in the Rutgers offense under new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, who was the head coach at Maryland for 10 years.

Franklin worked seven years over two different stints on Friedgen’s staff at Maryland.

The Rutgers offense, led by senior quarterback Gary Nova and running back Paul James, has been impressive in the first two games.

Nova leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency, going 31-for-46 for six touchdowns and one interception against Washington State and Howard.

James leads the nation with six touchdowns.

He rushed for 173 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries to lead the Scarlet Knights to a season-opening 41-38 win over Washington State. And he rushed for another score to go with two touchdown catches as Rutgers beat Howard 38-25 last week.

“You break them down and look at tendencies and you look at all the things you see from an experienced coach, they show up,” Franklin said. “I think that’s one of the big reasons why they are playing that way.”

Flood has seen Friedgen’s effect on Nova already.

The coach said Nova is making better decisions. In his first three years, he never completed more than 57 percent of his passes. He also threw 51 touchdowns and 39 interceptions.

Through two games this year, he owns a 67.4 completion percentage.

“I think he’s done an excellent job with Gary in terms of relaying what his thoughts are that allows Gary to be the coach on the field,” Flood said. “That’s one of the biggest differences I’ve seen in Gary’s game this season as opposed to the first three seasons that he played quarterback for us.”

Though Flood acknowledges the excitement surrounding Saturday’s game, he’s reminded his players it can’t affect how they prepare.

Like Franklin, Flood said he’s taking the same approach he always does.

“There’s a process we go through every week regardless of opponent to get ready for a football game and I think so far we’ve done that,” Flood said. “If you keep yourself focused on the process, then the excitement around the game can only help you as you go through the week.”