Penn State football: Nittany Lions must rip Rutgers -- no mercy, no excuses
James Franklin will either win his 100th game as an FBS head coach or suffer the worst loss of his career Saturday afternoon in Piscataway, N.J. There is no in-between.
Penn State can not lose to Rutgers. Not now, with the program on an upward trajectory not seen this late in a season since 2016.
The Scarlet Knights have been Franklin’s 1 reliable palooka in the Big Ten East since they and he joined the conference in 2014. The 9th-year Lions front man has lost to every current East coach other than Greg Schiano. Franklin is 8-0 against the Knights and 2-0 against Schiano. The trend should continue, as the Knights are 19-point underdogs at home and haven’t beaten the Lions since 1988.
From a Penn State perspective, it must continue. If the program is to flush its .500 run over the past 2 seasons, it needs to perform like the power program it purports to be.
In his second stint as head coach, Schiano has restored some of Rutgers’ dignity. The New Jersey toughs have earned a reputation for playing hard and gritty to the final whistle — especially on defense and special teams. The Knights led mighty Michigan at halftime 2 weeks ago, only to lose the second half 38-0 and the game 52-17.
No. 11 Penn State (8-2, 5-2) will have to be ready to absorb a potential first punch. Rutgers struck first against Ohio State this year with an early touchdown, then lost the final 56 minutes of the game 49-3.
Other than its commitment to playing hard, Rutgers (4-6, 1-6) doesn’t have much going for it. The teams it has beaten have a combined 10-30 record. It ranks 12th in the B1G in scoring (19.9 ppg), 13th in offense (308.3 ypg) and 11th in ceding points (25.9 ppg). In contrast, Penn State scores 34 per game, gives up 19 and fields the league’s 3rd-best offense (434.3 ypg).
Schiano will try to jack up his squad to stay in bowl contention on Senior Day, but it’ll probably take a lot of PSU fans to fill SHI Stadium to its listed capacity of 52,454 for the 3:30 kickoff (BTN).
Penn State is chasing loftier goals — double-digit wins, a top 10 ranking and a prominent bowl game are all within reach. All the Lions need to do is keep pounding inferior foes like they’ve done all season and especially since the calendar flipped to November. After its narrow escape at Purdue to open the season, Penn State has won as a favorite 7 more times — by an average of 26 points. In the last 7 vs. Rutgers, the Lions have won by just under 33 points per game.
Even down 3 starting offensive linemen and a couple key defenders, Penn State pounded the living daylights out of Indiana and Maryland the past 2 weeks.
Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt finally had a decent outing Saturday in a 27-21 loss to Michigan State, but he’s not likely to follow with another one. After demoralizing Maryland 3rd-year starter Taulia Tagovailoa last weekend, Manny Diaz’s young, hungry defense isn’t going to back off against a redshirt freshman making his 5th start. The Lions have 13 sacks and 25 TFL over the past 2 weeks.
The biggest opponent this Saturday might be complacency. Franklin pointed out Tuesday that he was disappointed that his team eased up after belting Maryland 27-0 in the first half, winning the final 30 minutes just 3-0. That won’t do against the Knights and Schiano, an assistant at Penn State from 1990-95 when 6 of the Lions’ 30 victories in the 32-game series occurred.
“Got a ton of respect for him,” Franklin said. “Watching them on tape, their team plays really hard.”
Respect is appropriate. Mercy is not.
Penn State has never lost to Rutgers on the road, and has only lost to the Knights once since 1918.
Last year, the Lions blanked the Knights 28-0 with backup QB Christian Veilleux leading the way after Sean Clifford left early with flu symptoms. That team entered the game 6-4 — unranked, depleted and beaten down. And still completely outclassed Rutgers.
Weather won’t be a factor. The forecast calls for mostly sunny skies and 10 mph winds, a balmy day compared to recent Saturdays around the Big Ten.
Clifford should be giving way to Drew Allar at quarterback by the third quarter if not before. Penn State should, at minimum, prevail by double digits. Franklin should have his 76th victory in 112 games leading the Lions and 100th in 151 games including his 3 seasons at Vanderbilt.
If it doesn’t happen, it’ll be a major buzz kill for Penn State fans. No one will be talking about what a great coach Greg Schiano is.
This is no time for a letdown. Franklin and the Lions cannot lose to the Knights. They just can’t.