Battle in trenches key for Rutgers' hopes against Penn State
Since his arrival on the Banks, head football coach Chris Ash has harped on Rutgers being a line of scrimmage football team.
With the two most experienced position groups lying on each of the front lines, the Scarlet Knights (2-8, 0-7) were structured in a way where winning the battle up front on both sides of the ball, especially when it comes to the running game, would be integral to having success.
So after Michigan State had dominated that the Knights in the essential battle in the trenches on Saturday, the final scoreboard that read 49-0 in favor of the Spartans was indicative of just that.
Rutgers rushed for just 109 yards across 36 carries, good for an underwhelming 3 yards per carry. On the other side of the ball, running back L.J. Scott and Michigan State gashed the Knights for 277 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
"I think they came out with a great gameplan," said senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton after Rutgers' loss to Michigan State. "Things they did they executed well. We just didn't play very well today and we just gotta go and get better."
It's no coincidence that in the four Big Ten games that the Knights have had a legitimate chance of winning in the fourth quarter, they were competitive in the trenches.
In those four games — against Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana — Rutgers has averaged a solid 3.65 yards per carry while surrendering 4.5 yards per rush.
Even though they've held a negative rush differential in tight losses, that number pales in comparison to the Knights' disadvantage in their blowout losses to Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, which saw them give up 7.2 yards per carry while gaining a measly 2.03 yards themselves.
The closer that run differential has been in conference games, the more competitive Rutgers has been, which is why that battle will be key with No. 8 Penn State coming to High Point Solutions Stadium Saturday night.
Following a shaky 2-2 start to their season, which included a loss to Pittsburgh, a tight win over Temple and a blowout loss to No. 3 Michigan, the Nittany Lions have reeled off six straight games, highlighted by a 24-21 upset over then-No. 2 Ohio State Oct. 22.
What's helped propel Penn State to a tie with the Buckeyes and Michigan at the top of the Big Ten East standings has been the play of the Nittany Lions' fronts.
During Penn State's current six-game streak, opponents are averaging 3.2 yards per carry. That includes holding Iowa to 1.2 yards per carry and Ohio State — the conference leader in rushing at 6.1 yards per attempt — to a 4.5 average.
"They play with great effort," said offensive line coach A.J. Blazek of Penn State's defensive front. "They got some good players. They fight their tails off, I mean they play hard. So for us it's gonna have to be a street fight of hey who's gonna show up and keep swinging and keep swinging."
On the other side of the ball, the Nittany Lions' offensive line has helped position running back Saquon Barkley as a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Barkley, who originally committed to Rutgers before venturing out to Happy Valley, has amassed 1,113 yards for 13 scores on the ground while gaining an average of 5.6 yards per carry.
"I would say he's just a complete back," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. "He can run through you, he can run around you, he can jump up over you. I mean you've seen him do all those things if you've watched him play. He's elusive, he's tough, he catches the ball out of the backfield. I can't imagine there's something that he can't do that they would want him to do. If there was I'd sure like to know what it is cause he's a real impressive player."
During an impressive freshman campaign that saw him gain 1,076 yards on the ground and reach the end zone seven times, Barkley recorded 195 yards and two touchdowns on the ground en route to the Nittany Lions' 28-3 romp of the Knights in State College last year.
Led by Barkley and an improving sophomore quarterback in Trace McSorley, Penn State's offense comes to Piscataway riding a hot streak, scoring 38-plus in 4 of its last 5 games.
If Rutgers is going to knock the Nittany Lions off their game, and ultimately off their path to a Big Ten Championship game berth, the Knights are going to have to find a way to limit Barkley.
Easier said than done.
"Well I started a petition (to) the NCAA to see if we could play with 15 players so that's where it will start," Ash said jokingly on "The Chris Ash Show" Wednesday when asked about how to go about stopping Barkley. "Saquon Barkley is a great player. ... I watch what he's doing this year and he's made some very impressive runs. You have to have gap integrity (and) make sure you leverage the ball on the outside cause he's got really good speed. You have to have tremendous pursuit and do a great job of gang tackling if you're going to be able to limit the yards that a running back like this has."
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