STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – With 16 seniors playing their last game at Beaver Stadium, Penn State closes its regular season Saturday against Rutgers still alive for a berth in a New Year’s 6 bowl game. Here are five things to watch:
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford has shown grit, tenacity and fearlessness in his first 11 starts, but all the hits he has absorbed has taken their toll, including the one that forced him out of last week’s game against Ohio State with a leg injury. As a result, redshirt freshman Will Levis could get the start, or if not, at least see significant action. Coach James Franklin earlier this week called Clifford’s participation “a game-time decision.”
It will be interesting to see the package of plays that Levis will run. He exhibited a willingness to take tacklers head-on last week, which looks brave at first but may not be good for his long-term health. He also showed a knack for throwing 98-mph fastballs to his receivers when maybe a little more touch is required. All of this improves with experience, which he should get Saturday.
The numbers compiled by Rutgers this season have been brutal: 13.9 points scored per game and giving up 37.5; 263 yards of total offense per game and allowing 442.7; 23 turnovers and a minus-14 turnover margin; 10 touchdowns when in the red zone, fewest of any FBS team.
We could go on and on. The Nittany Lions certainly have seen the Scarlet Knights’ overall and winless Big Ten records, but they must stick to business and not play a sloppy game. This is the last time at Beaver Stadium for the seniors, and it would be a disservice to them if their teammates just went through the motions.
The Lions’ four-man running back corps was pretty much a one-man show last week. Journey Brown had 19 of the 20 carries the backs received. Devyn Ford got one series and one carry. Franklin decided not to play a previously injured Noah Cain, and he kept Ricky Slade from traveling because he violated team rules. Everyone is good to go Saturday, and the thought is the carries will be divided much more equally among the four.
Even though it allowed a total of 59 points in its losses to Minnesota and Ohio State, the Penn State defense has put up some impressive numbers this season, with the unit still ranking in the top 10 of FBS in rush defense (89.8 yards per game, fourth) and points allowed (14.8 per game, ninth). Another impressive stat is 20 turnovers forced, tied for 17th nationally, with eight interceptions and 12 fumbles, three of them last week. Those numbers could rise Saturday.
The final home game is usually a swirl of emotions for the seniors – 16 this year – who will be introduced prior to the game. These big guys could show some tears when they greet their parents or when they gather for the group photo or when they come out of the tunnel for the opening kickoff for the last time. It’s their last opportunity to play at home, and they want to make the most of it. The fact they’re going for win No. 41 – the most of the Franklin era – in their careers indicates a job well done.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College
TV/Radio: Big Ten Network; WPHT-AM (1210), WNPV-AM (1440)
Records: Penn State, 9-2, 6-2 Big Ten, No. 10 in College Football Playoff ranking, No. 12 in AP ranking; Rutgers, 2-9, 0-8.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (sixth season, 54-23; 78-38 overall). Rutgers, Nunzio Campanile (interim, first season, 1-6).