Penn State didn’t devise a classic but still managed to beat Rutgers, 20-7, for the fifth consecutive time in Big Ten play.
Here’s the breakdown of a bland day in Piscataway.
How it happened
Penn State avoided giving in to frustration over the result, calling Rutgers a hostile destination despite the quiet atmosphere. Coach James Franklin said he expected a sturdy defensive effort from the Knights.
“People don’t understand until you put the pads on how extremely hard it is to win on the road in the Big Ten,” safety Nick Scott said. “… I feel good personally about this win. I don’t think we have anything to be ashamed of.”
Still, Penn State’s offense (particularly the passing game) was frustratingly erratic — but Rutgers’ was far worse. The Lions’ highlights came from freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth, who caught two touchdowns, giving him a team-high six, and the defense took care of the rest.
Penn State had more first-quarter points (3) than Rutgers had total yards (2), and the defense produced three turnovers, which the Lions turned into 14 points.
Franklin figured his defense would handle Rutgers’ one-dimensional offense, which it did until frazzled quarterback Artur Sitkowski (3-for-17, 18 yards) was pulled after throwing two inexplicable interceptions. Rutgers ran better with replacement Giovanni Rescigno but remained end-zone allergic until the fourth quarter.
Penn State made 11 tackles for loss (more than 4 above its Big Ten-best average), got interceptions from John Reid and Garrett Taylor and a fumble recovery from Daniel Joseph.
The big play
Poised to score its first touchdown against Penn State in four years, Rutgers ran a trick play (call it the Jersey Special) on fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line. The play worked perfectly, leaving Rescigno wide open in the end zone. But he dropped Trey Sneed’s soft-touch pass and fell on his back, deflating the sideline and stadium.
Rutgers trailed 13-0 at that point, so a touchdown would have pulled it back into the game. But the Scarlet Knights ended their streak later on Raheem Blackshear’s 2-yard run.
The final total: Rutgers went 272 minutes, 9 seconds from 2014-18 without a touchdown against the Lions.
Who came through
Freshman linebacker Micah Parsons made his first career start in place of Cam Brown and looked the part. Parsons had seven tackles and a first-half strip sack (though the Lions didn’t recover) as part of his two tackles for loss. Even better: Parsons rarely gets out of position in the run defense.
Freiermuth leads Penn State with six touchdown catches, getting two more Saturday, and has been the surprising revelation of this freshman class. “It’s not like he came in here and we had a hole in the roster and were forced to play him,” Franklin said. “He’s earned it the hard way.”
Defensive end Shareef Miller had 2½ tackles for loss, though he did take an unwise first-half penalty by removing his helmet. Miller said a Rutgers player hit him below the belt.
Freshman receiver Jahan Dotson looked poised again, catching a season-long 35-yard pass in the first half. He had a chance for a touchdown before halftime, but the play was broken up in the end zone.
What we learned
His off day aside (17-for-27, 183 yards), quarterback Trace McSorley became the winningest quarterback in Penn State history. The senior has 30 career wins, surpassing the record formerly held by Todd Blackledge and Tony Sacca. McSorley also became just the third Big Ten player to be responsible for 100 career touchdowns.
Penn State started three freshmen receivers, including Dotson for the second straight game. New Jersey native Juwan Johnson made the trip but did not play for the third consecutive game.
Penn State’s passing game, once so insistent that it would win 50-50 balls, has shown little inclination of that lately. McSorley heaved one downfield to freshman Justin Shorter in the second half, which Rutgers’ Isaiah Wharton intercepted.
Running back Miles Sanders said last week that he has to work on ball security. A fourth-quarter fumble as Penn State was running out the clock underscored that.