Style points might be necessary for Penn State
By Cory Giger
For The Sun-Gazette
Five things to look for as Penn State plays a really bad Rutgers team and looks to take another step toward a spot in the Big Ten title game and perhaps the College Football Playoff.
No. 1: Style points
The Nittany Lions need to destroy Rutgers, plain and simple. The Scarlet Knights are awful and were outscored by a combined 185-0 against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State.
This goes against the long-held beliefs of many PSU fans who grew up watching Joe Paterno take it easy on a lot of overmatched teams over the years. Sportsmanship matters, yes, and needlessly running up the score and rubbing it is frowned upon by many.
But we have to be realistic here. Style points matter to the human beings who will be selecting the CFP participants in a few weeks. The belief here has always been that Ohio State’s 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game two years ago got the Buckeyes into the playoffs, while a 31-24 victory might not have been viewed as good enough.
Penn State cannot afford a 31-17 type of win tonight. That would look bad. Just like 35-29 over Indiana in 1994 looked bad, and ultimately was held against PSU in its quest for a national title.
The Lions don’t have to run up the score in questionable situations late in the game to humiliate Rutgers. Rather, they need to prove from the get-go that they are the far superior team, pile up a lot of points simply playing their style and don’t let their foot off the gas.
If they do that, a win by 30 or more points should be expected. If it’s by 50 or more, all the better.
No. 2: Run, baby, run
Did we mention Rutgers is awful? That’s especially true when it comes to stopping the run, as the Knights allow 251 yards rushing per game, ranking 124th out of 128 teams in the country.
Michigan ran for 481 yards on Rutgers. Ohio State had 410. Michigan State had 277 last week.
Don’t be at all surprised if Saquon Barkley tops 200 yards for the third time this season, or if Trace McSorley tops 100, which hasn’t been done by a PSU quarterback since Michael Robinson in 2005.
Penn State has issues on the offensive line (more on that later), but there’s still no reason to think the Lions will be stopped on the ground if they remain committed to the run.
No. 3: O-line concerns
OK, if there’s one reason for pause about this game, here it is. Penn State’s makeshift offensive line has dealt with numerous injuries and should look like this tonight (left to right): Ryan Bates, Steven Gonzalez, Brian Gaia, Connor McGovern and Chasz Wright.
Wisconsin might blow the line up if that’s the group on the field in the Big Ten title game in a few weeks. But Rutgers isn’t remotely close to Wisconsin, so this game will be used as an opportunity for those linemen to get experience playing together and continue to gel for the better opponents coming up.
Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead kept trying to send Barkley up the middle last week at Indiana, and it just didn’t work. Gaia has played well, but Gonzalez and McGovern are getting thrown into the fire.
Bates, even though he’s a guard playing tackle, and Wright, who’s a massive human being (6-7, 343), are good tackles who can clear out space to give Barkley big openings around the edges. Look for Moorhead to take advantage of that.
No. 4: Start fast
The last thing PSU wants to do is give Rutgers any kind of momentum early in the game. It’s a Saturday night contest, and if the Knights get an early score or some defensive stops, they could actually start to think they can compete with the Lions.
Again, Penn State cannot afford for that to happen in a game it needs to win decisively.
It would be great that if the Lions win the coin toss, they take the ball first and march right down the field for a touchdown. Most coaches like to defer to the second half, but against a terrible defense like Rutgers has, the better option is to jump on it early.
Players to watch
PSU: Put the over/under on Barkley at 200 yards.
Rutgers: The front seven has been destroyed by running teams all season, so all the pressure will be on those guys to play great if the Knights want to keep this close.
Prediction: PSU, 47-10.