STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – It was clear that playing on Thanksgiving weekend with a Beaver Stadium student section that was less than half-full wasn’t going to be the spark needed to help Penn State give an impressive performance Saturday against a Rutgers team that was winless in the Big Ten.
Early on, it got to a point where a 29-yard field goal gave the Scarlet Knights their first lead in a Big Ten game all season. The visitors had 243 yards of total offense at halftime, or just 12 fewer than top-ranked Ohio State put on the Nittany Lions a week ago.
However, the Lions came around in the second half, played better defense, and got a touchdown pass from first-time starting quarterback Will Levis and two of Journey Brown’s three TD runs to overcome the Scarlet Knights, 27-6, before an announced crowd of 98,895 on senior day.
Penn State finished the regular season 10-2, its third 10-win season in four years, and claimed sole possession of second place in the Big Ten East at 7-2. The Lions will learn their bowl fate next Sunday and could wind up in the Rose, Cotton, or Orange Bowls.
It isn’t known whether the College Football Playoff selection committee takes style points into consideration when ranking the teams, and it wouldn’t be good if it did because Penn State didn’t have many Saturday.
The Scarlet Knights (2-10, 0-9) had more yards of total offense (383-333), more plays (71-61), one more turnover, a higher third-down conversion percentage, more sacks, and more tackles for losses. But the goal, as they say around the Lasch Football Building, is to go 1-0 each week, even if it’s not remarkable.
“We can blame it on a lot of things, but we probably didn’t approach this game like we should have,” senior safety Garrett Taylor said. “A lot of respect to Rutgers. We knew they were going to come out and run hard. We knew they didn’t have any quit in them.
“We got lax in some areas in our preparation and it showed. We came out slow. We didn’t play up to our standard. It’s something we have to address and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Penn State coach James Franklin said of Rutgers: “We have a lot of respect for that program.
“They’ve been giving us fits for years,” he said. “I think in a lot of ways we always get Rutgers’ best. I think a lot of it is there’s so much familiarity with the two programs in terms of recruiting, in terms of region, and all those types of things. They played well, we didn’t play as well as we could have. But I know we’re waking up [Sunday] happy.”
Levis started in place of Sean Clifford, who has gotten banged up in recent weeks. The 6-foot-3, 229-pound redshirt freshman rushed 17 times for 108 yards, including runs of 49 and 30 yards, both of which set up touchdowns. He went 8-for-14 passing for 81 yards, but 44 of that came on a touchdown to Jahan Dotson early in the fourth quarter.
The 6-foot-3, 229-pound Levis said he found out Tuesday afternoon that he was starting.
“It was really cool,” he said. “I get a few [reps] every practice throughout the year, but with Sean pretty much not taking any for Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, it was really cool just to be settled in and it kind of made me feel like I was the man for the week. To be able to be out there and direct everything was really cool for me.”
Brown, a redshirt sophomore who was playing for his 17-year-old cousin who died last Sunday, rushed for 103 yards on 16 carries and scored on runs of 2, 18, and 1 yards. His first score was set up on Levis’ 30-yard run
After a poor first half, the Lions defense came to life in the final 30 minutes, limiting the Scarlet Knights to just 140 yards and the second of Justin Davidowicz’s two field goals. The unit forced a turnover on downs at the Rutgers 44, which set up the final TD.
“Nothing was said” at halftime, said sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons, who led the team with 10 tackles. “I think in the second half we realized we weren’t playing our best football and we came out and started playing our best football. We were executing more and finishing.”
“We just wanted to send the seniors out right.”
The Lions did, and now they await their bowl destination.