PISCATAWAY, N.J. – The Penn State defense had plenty of question marks at the start of the season but quietly grew in performance and confidence at each of its positions – line, linebackers, secondary – as the calendar flipped to November.
The Nittany Lions didn't allow a defensive touchdown against Iowa and held Wisconsin to a single field goal after Jonathan Taylor's 71-yard touchdown run on the third play of last week's game. Even in the rout at Michigan, the Lions trailed by only 14-0 late in the third quarter before the roof caved in.
The 16th-ranked Lions (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) hope to continue their improvement on defense Saturday when they travel to Rutgers (1-9, 0-7) for their final road contest of the regular season.
Head coach James Franklin was concerned back in August about depth at defensive tackle and linebacker, but the numbers have grown steadily as young players have received more game experience.
"I think what you're seeing right now is our linebackers gain confidence and experience," Franklin said this week, "and you're seeing our D-tackles gain confidence and experience. Then you're seeing the D-ends, who we already felt good about, you see them taking the next step as well."
Young players have been a part of that development. Sophomore end Yetur Gross-Matos has put together a fine five-game stretch that includes 6 ½ sacks and 11 ½ tackles for loss. Freshman outside linebacker Micah Parsons, who never played the position before coming to Penn State, leads the team in tackles with 58.
Freshman defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher also has come on in recent weeks to move up to second team at his position.
The defense has accounted for 34 sacks, tied for sixth in FBS, and will be called upon Saturday to put the heat on freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski and Rutgers' quick passing game. The front four accounted for all five sacks last week against Wisconsin.
"Obviously, whenever you're able to pressure the quarterback with your four down linemen, you've got a chance to have a good defense," Franklin said. "We've been able to do that at times. I think we've shown flashes. But when you don't have to call pressures to get it, that's when you're at your best."
The Scarlet Knights' offensive line could present a challenge. It has been one of the best in the Big Ten in keeping its quarterback upright, allowing just 12 sacks through 10 games this season.
In general, however, the Rutgers offense has struggled. The team is last in the nation in points scored at 14.5 per game, and fourth from the bottom in total offense with a 274.4-yard average. One bright spot, however, has been Raheem Blackshear, a sophomore out of Archbishop Wood High School.
The 5-foot-9, 192-pound Blackshear leads his team in rushing with 478 yards and in receiving with 40 catches for 332 yards.
"He does a great job. He's explosive. He's quick," Franklin said. "He plays with a lot of confidence. Obviously, being a Pa. guy and playing Penn State is going to be motivation there."
Penn State at Rutgers
Saturday, noon, HighPoint.com Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
Records: Penn State, 7-3, 4-3 Big Ten, ranked No. 16 by the AP; Rutgers, 1-9, 0-7.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (fifth season, 43-20); Rutgers, Chris Ash (third season, 7-27).
TV/radio: Big Ten Network; WNTP-AM (990); WNPV-AM (1440)
History: Penn State holds a 26-2 lead in the series and is 4-0 against Rutgers since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions won last year's contest, 35-6, at Beaver Stadium, their 11th consecutive win versus Rutgers overall.
Three things to watch:
Penn State's pass rush. The Nittany Lions are tied for sixth in FBS with 34 sacks, or 3.4 per game. They had five last week against a Wisconsin team that had allowed 13 in nine games. Rutgers has given up just 12 sacks this season but will be challenged by a rush that has been sparked by ends Yetur Gross-Matos (eight sacks) and Shareef Miller (six). The Lions need to get pressure on freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski to disrupt the Scarlet Knights' quick passing game.
Sanders, Sanders and more Sanders. Penn State won the time-of-possession battle last week for only the second time this season, and did it with a steady diet of Miles Sanders. Sanders rushed a season-high 23 times for 159 yards against Wisconsin and helped the Nittany Lions convert third downs, or set them up in a manageable third-down situation. Sanders should see at least that much of a workload again against a Rutgers team that is 119th among 130 FBS teams in rush defense, allowing 230 yards per game. The Scarlet Knights also have given up a 48.0 percent success rate on third down.
Letdown concerns. After having to grind for 60 minutes in each of its last six games, Penn State gets what some would consider a breather against the struggling Scarlet Knights. Since scoring 35 points in its opener, Rutgers hasn't scored more than 17 in a game since then, and has allowed 30 or more points in all but two contests. So there could be a question of whether the Nittany Lions will have the focus that they had to maintain against the likes of Ohio State and Michigan. They must be sharp from the start and not give their hosts a glimmer of hope that an upset is possible. Another issue for the Lions is fulfilling the "eye test" for the College Football Playoff selection committee as the final spots for the New Year's Six bowls are determined.