Nittany Lions do just enough to get the ‘W’
By Cory Giger
PISCATAWAY — There was a comical scene midway through the third quarter Saturday in which Rutgers called a terrific trick play at the goal line — a halfback pass to the end zone to a wide-open quarterback.
He dropped it.
The play pretty much sums up Rutgers football.
But as hapless as the Scarlet Knights have been, seemingly forever, they didn’t roll over and let No. 16 Penn State feast on them Saturday afternoon.
The Nittany Lions played a sluggish, uninspired game, weren’t sharp by any means and got a tougher-than-expected physical battle. Still, the outcome was never really in doubt because, well, Rutgers did a lot of Rutgers things, and the Lions got out of town with a 20-7 win before a half-empty HighPoint.com Stadium.
James Franklin did his best to talk up the opponent afterward, saying, “We didn’t feel like we were going to come in and this was going to be an easy game for us.”
“They play everybody tough,” the coach added about Rutgers. “I thought they’ve been playing really, really good on defense.”
That’s true to an extent, and Rutgers did hold Northwestern to 18 points a few weeks ago, which Franklin pointed out. But the Scarlet Knights also gave up 55 points to Kansas, 42 to Buffalo, 38 to Illinois and 34 to Maryland this season.
Penn State scored 20. Its 19 first downs were barely more than what Rutgers had (17). And the Lions totaled just 322 yards of offense.
“We left a lot of points on that field — missed opportunities, balls we could have caught or overthrown or people are open that we’re not getting to,” receiver KJ Hamler said. “Defense did their part. They do their part every week. We’ve got to step up as an offense.”
Clearly, PSU’s offense is having far more problems than anyone could have expected. And quarterback Trace McSorley, who set a PSU record by winning his 30th game and also reached the 100-touchdown milestone for his career, put a lot of the blame on himself.
“I didn’t play well really at all, honestly,” McSorley said. “Just missed too many opportunities and didn’t take advantage of them. We’ll look at the film and see how things grade out, but right now I don’t think I played well at all today, personally.”
McSorley started slowly, completing four of his first 15 passes, before heating up some late in the first half. But he struggled some more late in the game and finished just 17-of-37 for 183 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
“We’re still a little off in the passing game,” Franklin said.
McSorley has been dealing with a right knee injury for several weeks and hasn’t looked to run as much as usual, although he did have seven carries for 39 yards Saturday.
But his right leg is his plant leg throwing the ball, and whether that’s the issue or not, the record-setting senior quarterback has just been off on a lot of throws in recent weeks.
“I need to be more accurate. That’s probably the biggest issue,” said McSorley, who’s now completing just 53.3 percent of his passes this season.
Penn State (8-3, 5-3 Big Ten) was stuck on three points for most of the first half, until Rutgers’ Artur Sitkowski threw one of the ugliest interceptions you’ll see on a pass to PSU defender Garrett Taylor with no receiver in sight.
The Lions took over at the Rutgers 28 and wound up getting a 6-yard TD pass form McSorley to tight end Pat Freiermuth for a 10-0 lead with 2:04 left in the half.
Rutgers (1-10, 0-8) quickly went three-and-out on its next possession, and PSU took over at its own 20 with 1:05 to go in the half. Miles Sanders broke off a 26-yard run to start the drive, and the Lions had first-and-goal at the 2 in the closing seconds.
McSorley was fortunate that Rutgers dropped an interception in the end zone. The Lions eventually had to settle for a 19-yard field goal from Jake Pinegar on the final play of the half, making it 13-0.
The comical Rutgers trick play occurred on its first series of the second half. The Scarlet Knights finally started moving the ball and drove all the way down the field to get first-and-goal at the 2.
Three straight runs were stuffed by the PSU defense. On fourth down from the 2, running back Jonathan Hilliman took a direct snap and ran to his left, then the left-hander tossed a pass to quarterback Giovanni Rescigno in the end zone.
Rescigno had an easy touchdown. It would have brought Rutgers within 13-7. It would have given the home team a lot of hope on senior day.
But Rescigno dropped the ball.
“That, ladies and gentlemen, is the entire 149-year history of Rutgers football in a single play,” longtime columnist Steve Politi from The Star-Ledger in Newark tweeted.
Penn State got a fumble recovery from Daniel Joseph late in the third quarter and turned it into seven points. The Lions started at the Rutgers 46, and McSorley later found Freiermuth again in the end zone for an 18-yard score and 20-0 lead with 13:06 to play.
Rutgers finally got on the scoreboard on its next series, going 65 yards and getting a 2-yard TD run from Raheem Blackshear with 9:23 remaining.
Penn State’s defense gave up some yards and first downs in the second half, but it still was in control against the offensively challenged Scarlet Knights. Rutgers finished with just 234 yards of offense.
“The defense in general is playing with such great confidence and everybody believing in each other,” PSU cornerback John Reid said.
Sanders finished with a career-high 27 carries for the Lions but surprisingly was held to 88 yards rushing. Like his coach, he chose to give Rutgers credit for staying close and being inspired on senior day, as opposed to being too critical of his own team’s performance.
“They’re a tough team,” Sanders said. “They play hard against us every time, and that’s what we expect. We can’t go into any game like this and just expect to win, so we’ve got to earn these Ws.”