Rutgers returns to field at Penn State
Somehow, disregarding the whirlwind of off-field controversies surrounding the program, the Rutgers football team finds itself in a pivotal third game of the season.
Come Saturday night when the Scarlet Knights (1-1) battle Penn State in an 8 p.m. primetime rematch at Beaver Stadium, more than just revenge and bragging rights in a potential budding rivalry are on the table.
After the Nittany Lions (1-1) and quarterback Christian Hackenberg were sacked 10 times by Temple in their season opening 27-10 embarrassment to the Owls, the prospects for Rutgers in its Big Ten opener looked promising.
But after the Knights’ 37-34 meltdown last week against Washington State — and the landslide of off-field negativity that followed over the course of the next few days — Rutgers rides into Happy Valley without even a fraction of the momentum.
As head coach Kyle Flood begins his three-game suspension after University President Robert L. Barchi announced the disciplinary action along with a $50,000 fine, associate head coach Norries Wilson fills the void in the interim.
On the flip side, while it was still not pretty, Penn State rebounded at home last week in a 27-14 win over Buffalo.
Widely regarded as a potential first round pick in next year’s NFL Draft, Hackenberg has yet to wow anyone on the stat sheet with his pedestrian 25-of-52 for 231 yards to go with one touchdown and one interception, but Flood described the 6-foot-4, 228-pound junior’s capabilities under center earlier in the week at Monday’s press conference in a single sentiment.
“I would sum it up in one play,” Flood said. “There's one play in the Temple game he's on the right hash and throws an out-cut all the way to the wide side of the field that was pretty well-covered and he delivered it perfectly with great pace. That's an NFL throw. There's no doubt he's an NFL first-round quarterback.”
The Knights’ signal-caller’s potential remains to be seen. After completing 27-of-33 passes for 342 yards with four touchdowns and an interception, sophomore quarterback Chris Laviano’s numbers look clean on the surface.
“Aside from the turnovers, I just did my job, executed the way coach preaches,” Laviano said after the game last Saturday. “That I really look forward to do — make plays when they’re there and do my job.”
With roughly 107,000 clad in white and navy blue for Beaver Stadium’s inaugural “Stripe Out,” Laviano leaves the friendly confines of High Point Solutions Stadium for his first road start.
“It's really the operation. I want to see (Laviano) operate better,” Flood said. “Now that he's had the experience of going out there for the first snap of a game and playing through a Big Ten football game, I want to see him operate the offense better and I think he will. I have high expectations for him, and I have no doubt that he'll perform better this week.”
Whatever the Glen Head, New York, native shows in his second straight week as starter, he’ll have to do it without Leonte Carroo as the star wide receiver awaits his status after being suspended indefinitely following his simple assault arrest under domestic violence.
Laviano, who connected with the senior captain for three scores and 181 yards on just seven catches in the first two games of the fall, will clearly be without the offense’s top weapon.
But to Flood, that opens up the opportunities for a junior-laden lineup — one more than capable of filling the void, according to the fourth-year head coach.
“I think guys like Andre Patton, Janarion Grant, John Tsimis will be able to do a little bit more for us this week,” Flood said. “Carlton Agudosi's role is going to get bigger. A guy like Vance Matthews, his role may get bigger this week.”
All of the juniors Flood mentioned should receive plenty of looks in a rematch of last year’s 13-10 home loss where the Rutgers offense failed to generate or sustain any drives.
But one who enters as this week’s X-Factor has to be Grant. The Trilby, Florida, native broke out last week, doing it all for the Knights on his way to a program record 339 all-purpose yards that led to his Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honor.
Aside from ripping off two kick returns for touchdowns — the first a 100-yard kickoff return and the second a 55-yard punt return — Grant hauled in five passes for 65 yards and took a jet sweep carry for 21 yards.
As Penn State head coach James Franklin prepares for the dynamic speedster, the Nittany Lions’ defense and special teams units are sure to have their hands full. Regardless of what is up the sleeves of the PSU staff, any double-teams or other schemes, Grant is prepared.
“If they come, I’m ready for it,” Grant said. “Just gonna stay competing, just trying to be the best.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Rutgers is still licking its wounds from the 559 total yards it allowed against Washington State.
While Penn State’s offense has yet to hit the ground running with an average of 254 total yards through the first two games, the Lions do possess weapons, like Saquon Barkley. The true freshman running back exploded against Buffalo last week, taking 12 carries for 115 yards — 101 in the fourth quarter — on his way to Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week honors.
And while Hackenberg hasn’t necessarily looked like the hyped draft pick the experts claim he is, a quick spin against an inexperienced Knights secondary could do the trick.
Last week’s result — and the off-field headaches that continued to ensue — could play a role in this game. But in order for Rutgers to win, Laviano knows that all has to be put behind the team.
“In football, you’ve really gotta have a short memory,” Laviano said. “Play-to-play, week-to-week, game-to-game.”
For updates on the Rutgers football team, follow @GarrettStepien and @TargumSports on Twitter.