Rutgers battles No. 14 Penn State at Beaver Stadium on heels of 3 conference wins
Seven days after a supposed rivalry game, the Rutgers football team embarks on another.
Most Scarlet Knight fans will spend their Saturday searching for any note of hope, as Rutgers (4-5, 3-3) battles No. 14 Penn State (7-2, 4-2) at Beaver Stadium, Nov. 11 at noon. To Nittany Lion fans, it's just another game — a stabilizer for them after dropping two straight games to then-No. 6 Ohio State and then-No. 24 Michigan State, falling 12 spots from their perch at No. 2 two weeks back.
Once a likely College Football Playoff hopeful, Penn State welcomes the Knights — who are seeing improvements in all facets of the game.
That was on display last weekend at High Point Solutions Stadium when Rutgers fought for arguably its strongest win of the season, a 31-24 win over Maryland off of a game-clinching defensive stand following a go-ahead Gus Edwards touchdown.
There has been a seismic shift in production from the beginning of the season to the last four weeks, where the team has been able to string together three Big Ten wins, and that isn't lost on the coaching staff.
"The next step was to try to get our players to understand what it was going to take to win games," said head coach Chris Ash, on the team moving on from starting 1-4. "And 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. But the energy, the enthusiasm, the preparation, all that stuff, effort, that's all been there. That's shown up every Saturday."
As with most of the Knights' wins this season, the one against Maryland came mostly through their run game, putting up 239 yards on the ground.
Edwards, a graduate transfer, was responsible for 109 of those, even hauling in a pass from junior quarterback Giovanni Rescigno for his first ever receiving touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Edwards is joined by senior Robert Martin and freshman Raheem Blackshear in the backfield, the unit's versatility being a major topic of discussion throughout the season.
With Rutgers unable to get its passing play consistently going, the running backs have been a welcome strength of the offense, especially late in games.
"You've got to be able to run the football, and when you can do it with fresh legs and rotate guys," Ash said. "Obviously that makes it more challenging for a defense, especially late in a game when you've got a guy that's fresh versus a guy that's taken 30 to 40 carries throughout a full game."
Presumably, the Knights' strategy going into the Maryland matchup was to attack its abysmal passing defense, but they opted for what has worked for them all season.
Coming up against Penn State, it seems going through the air would be the option for most teams, as not many running backs will find ground past the Lions' linebacker corps, even with the loss of standout Brandon Bell last season.
The home side posts the 16th best rushing defense in the country, allowing only 120.2 yards per game. If any one of Rutgers' three running backs can hit the ground the way they have all season, Knights fans may find that semblance of a chance they're looking for out of Saturday's contest.
But on the other side of the ball, Rutgers faces the three-headed attack of Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki, and there are very few teams that can match up with a line-up like that.
McSorley has 19 passing touchdowns this season, 4 going to Gesicki and 3 to Barkley, with DaeSean Hamilton the beneficiary of a team-leading 6. Between the three quarterbacks the Knights have slotted out this season, they have combined for 6 passing touchdowns.
And though the Knights running unit remains its strongest group on offense, Barkley's 9 rushing touchdowns still outnumbers Rutgers' leading rusher in Edwards.
The talent gap between the two programs is hard to ignore, and that has been a leading reason why Penn State fans refuse to acknowledge the Knights as a rival.
Most of the fuel to that fire for Rutgers fans has been in recruiting, where many New Jersey natives have either de-committed from the Knights and gone to the Lions, or have gone straight to State College entirely.
No rebuild in college sports is successful without an edge in recruiting, and Rutgers has that mountain it has to climb before it can start pitting itself against the Penn States and the Ohio States of the Big Ten East.
It's a process for sure, and there's no shying away from it for Ash and company.
"The proximity of Penn State, Maryland, schools up north, Boston College, we're obviously going to recruit against those guys every year because we are all in the same region, and that is what it is," Ash said. "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."
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