3 takeaways from Penn State's second win of the season
You know it’s a strange year when Penn State convincingly beating Rutgers is one of the surprises of the weekend.
It felt like business as usual as Penn State continued its reign of terror on Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten. It wasn’t a pristine performance, but wins in back-to-back weeks after a historically poor start to the season is just the cure for ailing team morale.
Following Penn State’s 14th straight win over Rutgers, the Lions set their sights on defending the Land Grant Trophy and finishing the regular season on a high. Penn State showed positive spurts against Rutgers that should provide confidence moving forward. These were the biggest takeaways from the Lions’ 23-7 win:
1. Still can’t Will the offense into existence
Throughout the first half, Penn State looked well on its way to its second 500-yard game of the season. Rutgers could do nothing to slow the Lions’ ground game as Penn State already had 133 yards rushing at the break, and Sean Clifford was 10-of-14 with a passing touchdown.
Will Levis, in the newly dubbed “Falcon” package, was having his best day as a rusher, already totaling 39 yards on the ground to go along with Devyn Ford’s 46.
But then the second half rolled around, and so too did the stagnant offense of past weeks. Clifford threw his conference-worst 9th pick of the season, leading to Rutgers’ only touchdown of the game.
Kirk Ciarrocca increased the frequency with which Penn State ran the QB draw, only now the Scarlet Knights were there to hold Levis for non-menacing carries. By the end of the game, Levis accounted for 17 of Penn State’s 57 carries. Of his 7 carries in the second half, 6 were for 4 or fewer yards. Levis never threw a pass.
“We have to mix some passes in but the weather was significant today,” Franklin said. “We have to mix some pass with Will in the game.”
Weather aside, it seemed fairly obvious that at some point in the second half some sort of deep shot may have caught Rutgers off guard. Instead Penn State was content to continue to pound the ball or dink and dunk down the field. Clifford averaged just 6.04 yards per attempt and completed just 2 passes of 20 yards in length or greater. He did make an additional deep pass to Jahan Dotson, but a fairly blatant pass interference was not called as the ball fell to the turf.
How the offense played against Rutgers may just be the necessary evil of how Penn State can win games. Get up early, and then just run the clock out for the rest of the game. Clifford hasn’t demonstrated this season that he can lead a comeback, so the best move is to just feed Ford and Keyvone Lee.
2. Defense is finally rounding to form
After a 5-week hiatus, the vaunted Penn State defense appears to have finally announced its presence.
Building off the momentum it established last week in Ann Arbor — holding the Wolverines to just 286 yards — the Lions did one better holding Rutgers to 206. The Scarlet Knights had recorded over 400 yards of offense in three straight games.
To say Penn State dominated the line of scrimmage would be an understatement. Rutgers averaged 0.9 yards a carry in the first half and finished with a season-low 83 yards rushing.
“The biggest thing in that game was the fronts, our offensive line and our defensive line,” Franklin said. “That offense had been able to move the ball and score points on everybody, and our defense was able to play at a really high level.”
It was all Noah Vedral could do to avoid relentless pressure, as he was sacked twice and could never get comfortable in the pocket. Vedral finished with 113 yards while completing just 17 of 30 passes.
Rutgers was stopped 3 times on 4th-and-short, which led directly to 14 points for Penn State.
“[The defense] got back to how we played for six years,” Franklin said.
3. A round of applause for COVID-19 management
It has nothing to do with how Penn State played, but Franklin and the program deserve some sort of recognition for their ability to stay relatively healthy in terms of the virus this season.
Penn State is one of the only teams in the conference to not have had any major issues resulting in a game postponement, and they’ve been able to field a normal roster each week aside from the bevy of football-related injuries.
The same week that 4 Big Ten teams weren’t playing and Ohio State was down at least 20 players, Penn State rolled to its easiest win of the year.
“Our focus from the very beginning with our administration and with our medical people and me, to the players and the parents, was to keep everybody safe and healthy,” Franklin said. “That was priority No. 1, and it was going to be very challenging.”
Franklin has stressed all season that his biggest goal was to keep his players safe during the pandemic, and if you’re judging him by that criteria, he’s done one of the finest jobs in the nation. The broadcast again made mention to him not living with his family all season, which only adds to the level of difficulty he’s faced this year.
Winning will always be important for Penn State, but at the end of the day some things are bigger than football, and Franklin should be commended for his management off the field.