So, not this year. Maybe Penn State has had historic 2020 troubles, and Rutgers historic Big Ten hopes. But that wasn’t the storyline Saturday inside SHI Stadium.
If this game had been the season opener, nobody could have been surprised by how it went down. Penn State looked powerful early, both sides of the ball, then took care of business to get to the 23-7 final score. Rutgers looked overmatched early, all facets.
Maybe 23-7 was representative enough, showing how Rutgers dug in and didn’t give in.
“Just because we’re doing things the right way, and developing and all that, so are other programs, and they’ve been doing it for a longer time,” said Rutgers first-year-back head coach Greg Schiano.
Running back a previously successful coaching era is a rare thing in sports, and rarer still that it goes well. But Rutgers is doing exactly that, Schiano 2.0, and right away this season it became clear that this was a worthy enterprise, not a chance in any way, just the best shot at getting in the game.
“Our guys played hard, right to the last snap, but hard isn’t good enough in this league," Schiano said. “This is ‘Big Boy’ football. You’ve got to play clean. You’ve got to play precise.”
Rutgers, now 2-5 in the league after beating Michigan State in its opener and Purdue last week, coulda (woulda, shoulda?) pulled out wins over Illinois (last-second heartbreaker) and Michigan (a three-OT game is the definition of a coin flip.)
Maybe expectations would have been too much right now if the Scarlet Knights were higher in the Big Ten East, after coming into the year on a 21-game conference losing streak.
A realistic prism: Could Rutgers give their big neighbors to the west at least some kicks to the shins, just to raise eyebrows?
“We struggled to handle them upfront, especially offensively," Schiano said. “We didn’t coach well enough or play well enough to win. Penn State deserved to win.”
Penn State, also 2-5, won it in a one-sided first half as the Nittany Lions had all the 17 points scored. Rutgers twice went for it on fourth-and-one from its own 45-yard line, which telegraphed that the brain trust believed this game required taking chances. Failed once. Failed twice. Both Penn State first-half touchdowns came from those resulting short fields, the first one, for the lead, took just four plays.
Schiano said he was still good with the calls.
“I believe in our guys," Schiano said. “I believe we can convert those. We just didn’t do that. I knew we were playing a good football team. We were going to be aggressive for sure.”
Let’s argue Schiano could have believed in his defensive guys by trying to pin Penn State back. You know all the arguments on that stuff. It didn’t work.
Schiano also didn’t beat his head against a wall. Fourth-and-four, his own 46, third quarter, Rutgers punted. Later, Schiano went for it again, fourth-and-six from the Penn State 25, but the Scarlet Knights were down 16 at the time, 5 minutes left. Easy call. (Didn’t work.)
In the first half, Rutgers created one break, recovering a Penn State fumble at the 36-yard line. First down, holding. Second down, a reverse fooled nobody, Nittany Lions defenders lining up back to the Jersey Turnpike ready to make the tackle. Third down was back in Rutgers territory.
Schiano talked about his quarterback working “under duress” and a tailback who didn’t get much work.
“I don’t know if anyone got in a flow. We were hunting and pecking," Schiano said “We were struggling to find any offensive success today.”
If the other guys hadn’t started 0-5, little of this would have been noteworthy. Now, Penn State has won a couple in a row, looking more like Penn State, and Rutgers isn’t close to there yet.