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Five observations from Penn State’s 20-7 victory over Rutgers

The Nittany Lions were flat and their passing attack continued to struggle, but they have two budding stars in linebacker Micah Parsons and tight end Pat Freiermuth.

Penn State freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth (87) leads the Nittany Lions in touchdown catches with six after snaring two against Rutgers.
Penn State freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth (87) leads the Nittany Lions in touchdown catches with six after snaring two against Rutgers.Read moreJulio Cortez/AP

Key takeaways from the Nittany Lions' win Saturday:

Yes, they were flat

The traditional narrative is that it's tough to win on the road in the Big Ten and Penn State did what it had to do to achieve that goal. But the Nittany Lions were dreadful for much of the game against a team that was winless in the conference and had allowed 34 points and 419 yards per game.

The Lions' two touchdown drives (23 and 46 yards) came on short fields after turnovers. Their longest drives (71 and 79 yards) ended in field goals. Maybe you could pin the lethargic performance on the grind of the regular season and tough opposition for most weeks. But just the look of the final score didn't boost public support nationally that the Lions deserve to be in a New Year's Six bowl. Which brings us to …

Hope the bowl committee wasn’t watching

The Nittany Lions were ranked 14th, or No. 2 among the three-loss teams on the list, last week by the College Football Playoff selection committee. If Central Florida can maintain its ranking, the top 12 will be selected for the New Year's Six bowls on Dec. 2. The committee is big on going through its process weekly, and that includes the "eye test" of teams in the discussion.

Chairman Rob Mullens, athletic director at Oregon, said after last week's ranking that "we talk extensively about every team we rank, from team No. 1 to team No. 25. We discuss in depth the strength and the weaknesses of each." Penn State did not impress Saturday. So if the Nittany Lions see West Virginia and Syracuse drop behind them in Tuesday's ranking, will they move up two spots, or will No. 15 Texas leapfrog them?

Or maybe it's much worry about nothing. Spending New Year's Day in Tampa or Orlando isn't so bad.

The passing attack still struggles

The passing game has suffered through myriad problems the entire season, including timing, drops, inexperience, and pass protection. Saturday, Trace McSorley stepped up and took the blame for the poor performance.

Head coach James Franklin went with three freshmen — K.J. Hamler, Jahan Dotson and Cam Sullivan-Brown — as starting wide receivers, with Hamler and Dotson combining for nine catches. Another freshman, tight end Pat Freiermuth, caught two TD throws.

Franklin insists it's not too late for the attack to improve, especially with young players coming on and veterans Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk, both of whom are injured, close to returning. The expectations were down from last year after the loss of Saquon Barkley, DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki, but the performance in the passing game has been disappointing.

Parsons is really something

Freshman linebacker Micah Parsons had led the Nittany Lions in tackles through 10 games, but Saturday marked his first career start. He continued to impress with seven tackles, a sack that resulted in a fumble, and two tackles for loss. The freakishly athletic Parsons came out of Harrisburg High as a defensive end and joined the team in time for spring practice, where he was moved to linebacker, a position he never had played.

His teammates have been impressed. "He's going to always attack the ball no matter where it's at, has a real high motor," cornerback John Reid said. As he continues to learn the more technical aspects of the position, Parsons would appear to be on track toward making his mark at "Linebacker U."

Freiermuth: Another impact freshman

Looking at the collection of tight ends at the start of the season, Penn State coaches decided to go with the committee approach in the first few games. But 6-5, 260-pound freshman Pat Freiermuth received more snaps as the weeks went on and moved into the starting lineup for good in Game 5 against Ohio State. Freiermuth leads the Lions in touchdown catches with six after snaring two against Rutgers, and his 22 catches are second on the team.

Franklin said the best thing about Freiermuth's development isn't that there was need at the position and they needed him to fill the hole, but rather, that he made enough progress to win the job over three rather talented tight ends.