Neil Rudel on PSU: Regular season winds up in unimpressive fashion
STATE COLLEGE – This was anything but tying a bow on a 10-2 regular season.
In one of the more uninspired senior day performances in memory, Penn State eventually beat a game Rutgers squad, 27-6, Saturday afternoon at Beaver Stadium.
But almost no one left here overly impressed.
The post-Thanksgiving game had all the trappings of a mail-it-in-effort, and the Nittany Lions fell right into it.
The nation was trumpeting “Rivalry Week,” and here Penn State was, stuck with Rutgers.
With the students on holiday break and understandably not eager to race back, there was no atmosphere, and Penn State definitely didnít create any.
Attendance was just 98,895 — easily the lowest of the year as no other game drew less than 104,000 — and the players noticed the lack of energy, internally and externally.
“The routine was different,” defensive tackle Rob Windsor, one of 16 seniors playing his final home game, said. “It affected things.”
James Franklin acknowledged that the Lions “always get Rutgers best,” and they did. The Knights led 3-0 through the first quarter and allowed Penn State just one first-half touchdown.
Rutgers, which fired its coach in September and limped in 2-9 (winless in the Big Ten), had a chance to cut the halftime deficit to 7-6 but missed a 35-yard field goal as time expired.
The fact that Penn State had to ice Rutgers kicker Justin Davidovicz is instructive to how borderline desperate the Lions were.
For the Nits’ sake, the tactic worked, as Davidovicz missed, but his 38-yarder on the opening play of the fourth quarter pulled the Knights within 13-6.
While Rutgers was never really a threat to win, the Knights were making an admirable nuisance out of themselves.
“They came out and played hard, and they had different looks we hadnít seen all week,” senior guard Steven Gonzalez said. “It was an adjustment for us, and we made that at halftime. They’re on scholarship, too. They’re not going to roll over just because we’re Penn State.”
The Lions had some excuses. They were without starting quarterback Sean Clifford and top defensive lineman Yetor Gross-Matos, due to injuries. They also lost corner John Reid during the game.
Will Levis showed his toughness for the second straight week in place of Clifford by rushing for 108 yards on 17 carries. But his passing efficiency, save for Jahan Dotson’s 44-yard touchdown that finally created some breathing room at 20-6 with 12 minutes left, was missing.
Counting the Dotson connection, Penn State scored two TDs in the fourth quarter to create a deceiving final score.
“The second half we realized we’re not playing our best football,” linebacker Micah Parsons said. “We came out and executed more.”
The Lions also allowed Rutgers to rush for 184 yards, lead in first downs (19-17) and keep the Nits’ offense off the field due to a seven-minute advantage in time of possession.
There were times when Rutgers won more up-front battles than you’d expect.
“At the end of the day, we found a way to get a win against a Big Ten opponent,” Franklin said.
They did, and they’re 10-2 against a legitimate schedule. Now they’ll await their bowl fate, possibly the Rose, which could make Franklin’s third New Year’s Six Bowl in four seasons.
Parsons said that distinction, “shows the improvement we’ve made since last year (9-4). Obviously working our way back up to being a top-tier program is real important. We’ve got 10 wins, and we’re pushing for 11. That’s a hard thing to do so credit to the team.”
I was going to get around to that and will take the prod, but not before including the indisputable fact that wherever the Nittany Lions land in bowl season, they’ll need a much better performance than what they turned in Saturday.
Neil Rudel covers Penn State football and can be reached at 814-946-7527 or by email at email@example.com.