Rutgers believed this was the year.
It would be the day of catharsis it has yearned for; the finally-defeated bully forced to begrudgingly concede his respect. Members of the 1988 team would no longer field phone calls every fall. The ascension of the current-day program would become even more pronounced.
The Scarlet Knights arrived with more excitement and hope than they’ve had in years, sporting new all-black duds engineered for the occasion. They boasted the better record. Greg Schiano and Sean Gleeson decided to moonlight as riverboat gamblers for the first half. But it still was not enough.
This may be the worst Penn State team in well over a decade. But Rutgers has not closed the gap yet in depth, in talent and most certainly in making this series a true rivalry. The Nittany Lions’ 23-7 victory Saturday at SHI Stadium in Piscataway — and it really was not even that close — was the harsh back-down-to-earth moment the Scarlet Knights have avoided so far during this strange season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It was the first true clunker Rutgers has had in Schiano’s first season back, and it eliminates the possibility of a winning season while almost assuredly dashing whatever long-shot bowl bid hopes the Scarlet Knights had. Schiano said earlier in the week Rutgers has to give Penn State a reason to consider this a rivalry. That has not changed after this one.
The Nittany Lions have now won 14 straight meetings and bumped their commanding all-time series lead to 29-2, with Rutgers’ only wins coming in 1918 and ‘88, both in State College.
Penn State capitalized on Rutgers’ main defensive liability with a punishing run game, racking up 248 yards on the short-handed Scarlet Knights, who were without safety Brendon White and did not play middle linebacker Tyshon Fogg much. And while the Scarlet Knights got quarterback Noah Vedral and left tackle Raiqwon O’Neal back from injury, the offense was ineffective all day due to questionable play-calling and a lack of production not seen in several weeks.
Penn State (2-5) jumped out to a big lead thanks to Rutgers’ failed aggression in the first half. Gleeson and Schiano tried to jump-start their struggling offense by leaving it on the field for a pair of fourth-and-1 tries from their own 45-yard line. But the decisions backfired and the Nittany Lions took advantage of the short fields with a pair of touchdowns.
Penn State stuffed short-yardage quarterback Johnny Langan for no gain on the first fourth-down try late in the first quarter with defensive tackle and former Hun star Fred Hansard leading the way. The Nittany Lions then went up 7-0 on a 29-yard touchdown pass by quarterback Sean Clifford to wideout Parker Washington.
Langan then rolled to the right on the second fourth-down attempt with about 10 minutes left in the half and was hit by linebacker Brandon Smith as he threw, barely getting off an incomplete pass into the ground. Penn State rolled right back to the end zone, capped by Ford’s 7-yard scoring run.
Keyvone Lee led Penn State with 95 yards on the ground. Ford and battering ram backup quarterback Will Levis each had 65. Clifford finished 15-of-22 for 133 yards as the Nittany Lions overpowered the Scarlet Knights and dominated time of possession by close to 15 minutes a week after Rutgers’ ball control propelled it to a win at Purdue.
Rutgers (2-5) did not help itself by letting its own breaks slip away. Penn State had to settle for a second-quarter field goal after Washington dropped a likely touchdown pass and the Nittany Lions lost a fumble on their own 36 right before halftime. But Rutgers went backwards after the takeaway thanks to a holding call and a botched reverse play and ended up punting from near midfield.
The Scarlet Knights finally got on the board when wideout Bo Melton pulled down a jump ball heave from Vedral on fourth-and-goal to make it 20-7 with 4:56 left in the third quarter. The score was set up by a Christian Izien interception. Rutgers’ defense then held Penn State scoreless on its next two drives, but the Scarlet Knights could not capitalize before the Nittany Lions tacked on an insurance field goal by kicker Will Pinegar with 7:27 to go.
Rutgers was out-gained 381 yards to 205 with just 122 passing. The Scarlet Knights were 2-of-13 on third down, and Vedral’s 53 yards scrambling was their most-effective running game.
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James Kratch may be reached at [email protected].