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Penn State-Rutgers preview: Can the Nittany Lions avoid another fourth-quarter collapse?

The Nittany Lions have lost four of their last five games, holding fourth-quarter leads in three of them. James Franklin said the push is to score more touchdowns and not settle for field goals.

Penn State running back Keyvone Lee getting tackled by Indiana linebacker Cam Jones (4) in the first half of the teams' Oct. 2 game.
Penn State running back Keyvone Lee getting tackled by Indiana linebacker Cam Jones (4) in the first half of the teams' Oct. 2 game.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

It hasn’t been a pleasant fall season for Penn State.

Four losses in its last five games. Three of the defeats coming after the Nittany Lions led at some point in the fourth quarter. An offense frequently lacking the punch to score touchdowns and needing to settle for field goals.

The Nittany Lions have gone from 5-0 to 6-4 and have no College Football Playoff or Big Ten championship to play for. They fell out of the top 25 for the first time earlier this week and need to defeat Rutgers or Michigan State in the coming weeks to secure a finish of above .500 for the season.

After enjoying trips to three New Year’s Six bowls in a four-year span, the Lions went without a bowl after going 4-5 in the year of the pandemic, and are looking at a lower-tier bowl game like the Pinstripe or Music City Bowl next month.

So the Nittany Lions will try to make it a good senior day, not only for those leaving but also those returning for an extra year allowed by the NCAA. Whatever the case, head coach James Franklin says the preparation and the message remain the same.

“I try,” he said, “to keep our players and our program focused on being the best we possibly can be today and trying to be 1-0 each week, to try to keep our preparation and our approach consistent from week to week, no matter the outcome. That’s easier said than done.”

The Lions have 14 consecutive victories over the Scarlet Knights, who have lost seven straight to the Nittany Lions since joining the Big Ten, scoring just 39 points (5.6-point average) with a high mark of 10. This year’s Rutgers defense is what may keep them in this game.

What to expect

Finishing games. A telling statistic is that Penn State has been blanked in the fourth quarter three times during its recent 1-4 stretch. The Nittany Lions did score 11 points in the fourth last week to take a 17-14 lead over Michigan but the Wolverines won the game on a 47-yard TD pass and the Lions had no answer over the final 3 minutes, 29 seconds. Franklin laments the fact that his team has had to settle too much for field goals; the Lions have scored 15 offensive touchdowns in their seven Big Ten games. Quarterback Sean Clifford, who was 22nd in FBS pass efficiency after the Lions’ 5-0 start, enters Saturday’s game ranked 78th.

Is the run game ready? Penn State’s running backs finally showed some signs of life, rushing for 105 yards and averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Sophomore Keyvone Lee carried 20 times for 88 yards, most by a Lions’ running back this season, and appears to be the No. 1 back going forward. Franklin said he and his staff are investing in the run game “like crazy,” making sure they’re staying patient. He said the backs are running more decisively and the offensive linemen have been more physical. They’ll need to do both against a decent Rutgers rush defense which allows 4.1 yards per carry.

The other guys

Strength on defense. Rutgers’ defense has some good numbers. Its 28.8% mark in third-down conversion defense ranks fourth in FBS. The Scarlet Knights have 17 takeaways and are plus-7 in turnover margin, both tied for third in the Big Ten, and are third in the conference in red-zone defense (51.9% TD percentage). Linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi, a Butkus Award semifinalist, is a one-man wrecking crew – 89 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, one safety.

Rejuvenated Knights. The second coming of head coach Greg Schiano has given the Rutgers program a boost. The Scarlet Knights have no qualms about playing on the road, having crushed Indiana, 38-3, last week and claiming six takeaways – four fumble recoveries, two interceptions – to improve their record to 3-2 away from Piscataway. The upperclassmen have accepted increased responsibilities with being leaders and the younger players have bought in.

» READ MORE: With each defeat, Penn State’s postseason plans involve a lower-tier bowl game

What to watch

Something going around. Franklin said Wednesday night that at least six players on his roster were running fevers “over the last couple of days,” adding it was a flu or virus but not COVID-related. Two starters on the offensive line, tackle Rasheed Walker and center Mike Miranda, were believed to be among those taken ill. The Nittany Lions haven’t utilized much depth in the trenches on offense, with redshirt junior Bryce Effner usually the first – and sometimes only – guy off the bench. Franklin said highly regarded freshman Landon Tengwall would be in line for some playing time if a starter can’t go.

Punting battle for the ages. The game will spotlight the nation’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams in net punting. Rutgers averages 45.7 yards net per punt and the Nittany Lions are right behind at 45.5. Penn State’s Jordan Stout ranks ninth in FBS in punting with a 47.0-yard average, and the Scarlet Knights’ Adam Korsak strikes his punts an average of 46.3 yards, 13th nationally. Stout also has 48 touchbacks on 53 kickoffs and has had just one returned, for 11 yards.

Prediction: Penn State 24, Rutgers 13