Rather than having more flashbacks to its first five games of 2020, Penn State has been channeling its success of previous seasons under James Franklin the last two weeks, with a strong defense complementing a physical rushing attack driving a ball-control offense.
The Nittany Lions played shutdown defense Saturday against Rutgers for much of the game and rushed for 248 yards in an efficient offense that helped them subdue the Scarlet Knights, 23-7, at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, N.J., for their 900th victory in program history, the eighth team to reach that mark.
A nasty wind that frequently gusted to more than 25 miles an hour kept either team from airing the ball out on offense, but the Lions were able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the football in winning for the second straight week after an 0-5 start.
The defense held the Scarlet Knights (2-5) to 43 total yards in the first half for a 17-0 halftime lead and limited them to 205 yards for the game. The unit stopped Rutgers on fourth-and-1 from the Knights’ 45 on its initial drive of the game, and again in the second quarter at the same spot, and the offense converted both turnovers on downs into touchdowns.
“It’s really been two weeks in a row – third-and-short stops, fourth-and-short stops as well,” head coach James Franklin said. “We were able to come off and be disruptive. We thought we had a chance with our defensive line on their O-line. But that’s two weeks in a row in critical times our defense was able to make significant stops.”
The Scarlet Knights entered Saturday averaging 30.8 points but were only able to score once, capitalizing on a Sean Clifford interception at the Penn State 36. Noah Vedral threw a desperation pass on fourth down in the end zone to Bo Melton, who outjumped two defenders for the 3-yard score late in the third quarter.
It was only the third TD scored by Rutgers in seven Big Ten games against Penn State. The Knights’ longest play Saturday was 19 yards.
“As far as our confidence level, we knew if we played our best, we knew it would be very hard for Rutgers to beat us,” said linebacker Jesse Luketa, who led the Lions defense with 10 tackles. “So it was a big factor for our confidence.”
The offensive line dominated in the running game, which topped 240 yards for the fourth time this season. Freshman Keyvone Lee, who rushed for 134 yards in last week’s victory at Michigan, put up 95 Saturday in 17 carries, including a 31-yard scamper in the fourth quarter that set up a field goal.
Sophomore Devyn Ford, who returned to the lineup after missing last week’s game due to the death of his brother, added 65 yards in 11 carries and scored on a 7-yard run.
“Getting any win is a great thing,” Ford said. “Getting back-to-back wins is a wonderful thing. We’ve been clicking. We’ve been making things work. It’s come out in our favor. We’re starting to show that we have a team. We just haven’t been able to play like we wanted to play. It hurt us at times. It feels good.”
With the wind howling, Clifford threw mostly short passes and went 15 of 22 for 133 yards with a 29-yard pass to freshman Parker Washington for the Nittany Lions’ initial TD in the first quarter. Backup quarterback Will Levis did not throw a pass but rushed 17 times for 65 yards.
“When we go in, we execute to the best of our ability,” Clifford said. “When we’re out, we’re both cheering each other on. Will and I have a great relationship, especially this year it’s kind of been necessary. It’s been easy because Will and I are very similar, both hardworking. We both want what’s best for the team. I think that it’s working right now.”
The Lions added three field goals – 30 and 27 yards by Jake Pinegar, and 47 yards by Jordan Stout.
Given the down year for Penn State and Rutgers’ improvement, the game was expected to be more competitive. But the Nittany Lions seem to have found some of the mojo of their teams of the last four seasons when they won 42 games and went to three New Year’s Six bowls.
“It’s always nice to stack up these wins,” Clifford said. “That’s what we did last year. That’s the thing – I continue to go back to whenever we get down, we still have guys that were 11-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. We’re still that team. We still have great players. There’s no issues. We just need to execute better and play better.”