STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – On a day when most of the 107,531 in attendance at Beaver Stadium wanted to cheer their team on to stay warm Saturday in near-freezing temperatures, Penn State started out sluggish, as if the Nittany Lions' two gut-wrenching losses the previous two weeks still were on their minds.
A short opening kickoff that bounced away from Saquon Barkley was recovered by Rutgers. The Nittany Lions were shut out in the opening quarter for the first time all season. Less than four minutes into the second period, the visitors held a 6-0 lead and a 107-24 advantage in total yards.
But the 17th-ranked Lions bounced back from their frustrating afternoons at Ohio State and at Michigan State, thanks to quarterback Trace McSorley and a defense that slammed the door on the Scarlet Knights from that point on, and they cruised to a 35-6 Big Ten victory.
"I wouldn't say there was a hangover, we just weren't in a groove," McSorley said after passing for two touchdowns and running for a third to give him 68 career total touchdowns responsible for, a program record. "We didn't start fast. We were a little shell-shocked. I said, 'Let's get past that, let's start playing ball, let's play confident, let's play loose.' "
Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton agreed there was no hangover, that it was a matter of the Nittany Lions (8-2, 5-2 Big Ten) regaining focus after the rough opening.
"Obviously, to start the game with a turnover on a kickoff return and starting behind the eight-ball, it took us a little while to wake up a little bit," he said. "But the guys did a great job bouncing back and being able to make plays sooner rather than later."
McSorley completed 16 of 21 passes for 214 yards and TDs of 22 yards to Hamilton and 16 yards to tight end Mike Gesicki. He also ran 13 times for 44 yards, including a 20-yard score.
Barkley, who struggled yet again on the ground with 35 yards on 14 carries, scored on third-quarter runs of 1 yard and 4 yards.
The Penn State defense allowed just 93 total yards in the final 41 minutes of the game, 64 coming on a late drive against mostly backup players. On seven drives from early in the second quarter to the 6-minute mark of the fourth, the Scarlet Knights (4-6, 3-4) did not record a first down.
"That's big-time," said linebacker Jason Cabinda, the Lions' top tackler, with 11. "We were able to get them off schedule. We started getting [tackles for losses] and we were really stuffing the run game, wearing down guys up front. That's a credit to the d-line, their rotation, having fresh legs in there."
Rutgers quarterback Gio Rescigno completed just 7 of 20 passes for 43 yards.
"Obviously, the opening kick is not how you want to start a game," Penn State coach James Franklin said, "but after that, I thought we made plays and played pretty good. [Rutgers] has won three out of their last four games and has done some good things."
Andrew Harte's field goals of 33 and 25 yards gave Rutgers the early lead, but McSorley kick-started the offense on Penn State's fourth possession, with completions of 19 yards to Gesicki and 25 yards to Hamilton to set up his own 20-yard scoring run.
Hamilton's TD catch came with 1 minute, 13 seconds left until halftime to make it 14-6. Barkley scored his first touchdown with the help of a hook-and-lateral play, in which Hamilton caught a pass and lateraled to Barkley. His second TD was aided by a 25-yard pass from McSorley to Juwan Johnson.
After seeing its playoff and conference championship possibilities all but vanish the past two weeks, Penn State needed a win, even though its running game continued to struggle and the offense gained just 304 yards, second-lowest behind its 283 in the Ohio State loss.
But it's a win.