Rutgers sits right there behind PSU in Big Ten

Gus Edwards leads a three-man rushing attack for Rutgers. ASSOCIATED PRESS

STATE COLLEGE – Enter­ing Saturday’s Home­coming game between Penn State and Rutgers, both teams find themselves in unexpected territory in the Big Ten East standings. With the Nittany Lions dropping two straight and the Scarlet Knights winning three of their last four conference games, Rutgers sits only a game back of Penn State for third. Pair a Rutgers victory in Happy Valley with a Michigan win over Maryland, and Penn State could wake up Sunday morning in fifth place in the East.

After going winless in the Big Ten in head coach Chris Ash’s first year at the helm, Ash says his team made the necessary improvements this offseason to compete in 2017 despite his team’s 1-4 start.

“This team changed after last season,” Ash said. “We went through an awful experience last year. It’s the details, it’s the discipline, it’s the execution, it’s the consistency and what we are asking them to do, and we have gotten better at that part of it. It’s not anything else.”

Key to Rutgers’ recent success has been the ability of its three-headed rushing attack to keep the chains moving and relieve pressure off the shoulders of senior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno.

The Scarlet Knights rank dead last in the Big Ten in passing, averaging just 127.0 yards per game, but have a run game strong enough for sixth-best in the conference with 167.4 yards per game.

Rutgers splits carries among three different backs. Gus Edwards leads the charge with 630 yards, while fellow ball carriers Robert Martin and Raheem Blackshear have combined for 587 yards and six touchdowns as a complement to Edwards.

“We’re just lucky that we have them,” coach Chris Ash said. “You’ve got to be able to run the football, and when you can do it with fresh legs and rotate guys, that makes it more challenging for a defense, especially late in a game when you’ve got a guy that’s fresh. We’ve got the luxury to do that.”

Rutgers defensive coordinator Jay Niemann hopes that his defensive line has finally found its stride.

Penn State’s Trace McSorley has been sacked four times in his team’s two losses behind a battered offensive line that has struggled to open holes for the run game.

Despite ranking second to last in the Big Ten with only 12 sacks, Rutgers had its most successful day providing pressure all year in Saturday’s victory over Maryland. The Scarlet Knights recorded four sacks and five tackles for a loss against the Terrapins.

“Our pressure is underestimated,” Niemann said. “Hits that don’t show up in the stat column are underestimated. We’ve been hanging around the quarterback a lot. We were just finally able to finish some of those off (against Maryland). I can’t say enough good things about those guys.”

Recruiting Rivalry

Adding to the intrigue of Saturday’s contest is the geographical proximity of the two programs. The two schools often battle over the same recruits. Penn State has found recent success in prying stars away from New Jersey with stars like Mike Gesicki (Manahawkin), Jason Cabinda (Flemington) and Manny Bowen (Barnegat) all hailing from the Garden State.

“People talk about it all the time,” Ash said. “Our concern is recruiting guys that we think can play and develop to be Big Ten players. I don’t care who else is recruiting them. We’re obviously going to recruit against (Penn State) every year because we are all in the same region. Penn State’s got a lot of history, a lot of tradition, they have got a great venue; that excites people and we hope to do the same thing here. We’re just concerned about getting the guys that fit our system.”