PISCATAWAY, N.J. - An uneasy feeling may have been going through the Penn State fans at High Point Solutions Stadium on Saturday night after the Nittany Lions went to the locker room at halftime with just a 9-0 lead over a Rutgers team that has struggled all season.
But the feeling among the No. 8 Lions themselves was total confidence that they would finish off drives in the second half, and that's exactly what happened. They scored on their first three possessions of the third quarter and steamrolled to a 39-0 victory over the Scarlet Knights for their seventh straight win.
Penn State (9-2, 7-1 Big Ten) kept its hopes alive for a berth in the Big Ten championship game in two weeks. The Nittany Lions need a victory at home next week over Michigan State, and Ohio State must defeat Michigan in Columbus, in order for them to represent the Big Ten East in Indianapolis.
The Lions outgained Rutgers, 549-87. They held a 216-66 advantage in the first half and drove into the red zone four times but had just three field goals to show for it, all courtesy of Tyler Davis. However, they know they've done a fine job in the second half all season, having entered the game outscoring their opponents 209-102 in the final two quarters.
"You guys have heard me say this: I really don't want to go in the locker room and say we're a second-half team," head coach James Franklin said, "but in times like this, it's nice to go in and say we're a second-half team. Guys responded well.
"We've been in some situations this year where I guess some teams or some coaches, some coaching staffs, could panic. We've just been in this situation so many times that the players believe in each other, they believe in the coaches. The coaches believe in the guys. We're going to battle for four quarters."
Juwan Johnson, a backup wide receiver out of Glassboro High School, blocked a punt on Rutgers' first possession of the second half, putting the Lions in business at the Scarlet Knights' 10. Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 92 yards, scored on a 1-yard run for the first touchdown of the game.
Barkley, the leading rusher in the Big Ten, took a hard hit and left the game for good later in the third quarter but Franklin said he was fine and could have returned.
Davis then hit his fourth field goal of the windy and rainy - and later snowy - night, and Andre Robinson scored on a 2-yard run to make it 25-0 after three quarters. The Nittany Lions wrapped things up with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns.
By that point, most of the announced crowd of 51,366 had left as the weather worsened, and Penn State fans represented the majority of those who remained.
The Penn State defense limited the Scarlet Knights (2-9, 0-8), who lost their eighth straight game, to just 39 rushing yards and 48 passing yards, as quarterback Giovanni Rescigno completed just 7 of 16 passes. Rutgers was shut out in Big Ten play for the fourth time this season.
The defense was especially effective in keeping Rutgers at bay in the first half until the Penn State offense could get untracked.
"It was huge," linebacker Jason Cabinda said. "Even the offense in the first half, the stuff was there, they just needed to convert it. For us, we kept looking at the offense and said, 'Hey, we've got your back. We've got your back.' Time and time again, we were able to go out there and get three-and-outs, and that was huge."
Trace McSorley, who completed 17 of 33 passes for 210 yards, didn't have the same success throwing deep that he has had in previous games, but he was more efficient in the second half.
"I think it was our mentality," McSorley said of the second-half surge. "We got into the red zone a couple of times, and we knew we had struggled there in the first half, and we knew we really needed to get the ball in the end zone, kind of get this ball rolling. We had a feeling if we got one in, then things would kind of start coming to us, and we were able to get on a roll."