Rutgers collapses in familiar fashion as Penn State spoils Knights' first Big Ten game with late touchdown
Not a single word was spoken as members of the Rutgers football team tucked their heads, slowly gathered their belongings and prepared to depart a somber locker room within the bowels of High Point Solutions Stadium.
On perhaps the biggest stage in school history Saturday night, it was all right there for the Scarlet Knights: A 10-point halftime advantage. A defensive shutout for 32 minutes. A four-point lead and the ball with about three minutes left.
With time ticking away, a signature win against northeast rival Penn State — the Big Ten first impression the Knights so desperately desired — neared closer and closer.
But when it mattered most, an eerily familiar script unraveled again.
Rutgers' defense, after putting up stop after stop throughout the night, finally proved vulnerable as the Nittany Lions went 80 yards in six plays for their first touchdown of the night on a five-yard rush with 1:13 remaining.
Senior quarterback Gary Nova's fifth interception of the game soon followed on a desperation heave downfield, and a 13-10 gut-wrenching loss left the largest Piscataway crowd in history speechless.
"We're a really hurting team right now," head coach Kyle Flood said postgame. "You play a close game against a good football team and you win at the end like we did the first game, there's exuberance. And then you play a close game and you don't win, and it's devastating."
For Rutgers (2-1), the parallels to a 20-17 loss in 2012 to Louisville are difficult to ignore.
Two years ago, the Knights also squandered a double-digit halftime lead, fell into an offensive rut and committed costly turnovers. A BCS bowl berth was on the line back then.
The short-term ramifications Saturday weren't quite as meaningful, but with dozens of the area's top recruits in attendance, Rutgers botched another opportunity to make a statement.
"We consider these championship games when you're going against other Big Ten opponents," said senior strong safety Lorenzo Waters. "It's definitely disappointing. You need these kinds of victories."
Yet again, a loss on a grand stage ultimately boiled down to quarterback play.
After a punt pinned Penn State (1-2) at the 20-yard line with 3:02 left, NFL prospect Christian Hackenberg stepped up and completed 3-of-4 passes for 84 yards, including a 23-yard sideline strike to wide receiver Geno Lewis on 3rd-and-13 to the 6-yard line.
The Knights' defensive front controlled the line of scrimmage throughout the game, completely nullifying Penn State's running game and repeatedly flushing Hackenberg out of the pocket. Rutgers even generated five sacks and forced several ineffective screen plays.
But with the Knights' offense unable to run the ball and strike any kind of rhythm down the stretch, Hackenberg eventually found a way, completing some difficult throws to finish with 309 yards passing.
"I thought we did a good job of doing what we needed to do to get him off his spot, make him uncomfortable in the pocket," said senior linebacker Kevin Snyder. "But other than that, he showed what he's made of. What you're made of is what you can do at the end of the fourth quarter."
Nova, meanwhile, reverted to his old ways when it mattered.
The senior completed only half of his 30 passes for 192 yards. He threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter to finish with five — the most he's had since throwing six against Kent State on Homecoming in 2012 — and mustered little beyond a 14-yard second-quarter touchdown run.
While a deflection and miscommunications created a few of the turnovers, Nova oftentimes tried to overcompensate by throwing across his body into tight coverage.
"We needed to make better decisions and not force the ball down the field," he said. "When you turn the ball over five times, you can't win the game."
Still, despite the fact Rutgers generated only three first downs and held the ball for 11 minutes in the second half, its defense continued to grind and preserve the lead for as long as it could.
But eventually, Nova's shortcomings came back to doom the Knights again. Eventually, it all came apart on a national stage.
Had Nova not overthrown junior tight end Tyler Kroft on 3rd-and-6 from Penn State's 44-yard line with about three minutes left, Rutgers possibly runs out the clock. But he did.
In the immediate aftermath of the déjà vu Nova likely thought he was past, there was no escaping the reality of another failure.
"We didn't play winning football," Nova said. "As the captain, leader of this team, I let the guys down today, and the only thing we can do is get back to work tomorrow and look forward to Navy."
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @gregp_j and @TargumSports on Twitter.