By: David Abruzzese and Ethan Kasales
The Nittany Lions (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) are happy to be home as they hope to halt a two-game losing streak against Rutgers (4-5, 3-3 Big Ten) opponent that’s amassed conference wins against Illinois, Purdue, and Maryland.
The Scarlet Knights have vastly improved under second-year head coach Chris Ash after last season’s 2-10 finish where the team’s only pair of wins came against FCS school Howard and New Mexico.
Former Ohio State coordinator Chris Ash’s players are buying into his philosophy and his system. The team hasn’t won three Big Ten conference games since 2014, and could become bowl eligible if it can pull off a string of upsets over the next three weeks.
Although Rutgers isn’t favored to win this weekend in Happy Valley, Ash and his staff picked up a huge recruiting victory after four-star blue chip quarterback prospect Artur Sitkowski of IMG Academy flipped from Miami to Rutgers so he can play in his home state of New Jersey.
Luckily, he won’t be suiting up with the Scarlet Knights until next season.
It’s been an up and down type of year for incumbent starting quarterback Giovanni Rescigno, who was beat out in the preseason by former Louisville quarterback Kyle Bolin. Here’s what SB Nation’s Rutgers affiliate On The Banks had to say about the quarterback change:
Ash realized that installing Louisville grad transfer Kyle Bolin was a mistake and made the change that was needed during the bye week. Coaches are stubborn by nature, especially when the change needed to be made shows they were initially wrong. Ash could have been insecure and unwilling to change in this case, but instead moved back to Gio Rescigno, who played well at times at the end of last season and brought stability to the offense since he took over this October. It’s easy for fans to ask what if Ash had only started Gio from the start of this season, but hindsight is always 20/20. The reality is that Ash is still learning on the job, but the encouraging takeaway is that he is starting to figure things out.
Rescigno’s accounted for 407 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception in limited work this season. He’s the same quarterback who started against the Nittany Lions in their 39-0 rout of Scarlet in a dreary Piscataway last season, and he’ll be the man to lead the Scarlet Knights into battle on Saturday.
Toting the rock for the Scarlet Knight offense will be Gus Edwards, who has extremely quick feet for a back of his size — he’s 6-foot-1, 235. Take a look for yourself:
What a cut!
— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) November 4, 2017
He’ll see the majority of the work, while fellow senior Robert Martin will play second fiddle. Martin is a significantly smaller back, and is a perfect complement. Expect to see plenty of both backs on Saturday as the Scarlet Knights use Martin in relief roles or in pass-catching situations along with Edwards, who’s compiled 12 catches for 102 yards and a score to go along with his 630 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.
Rescigno’s receiving corps is led by Damon Mitchell and Janarion Grant — both of whom are redshirt seniors. The former is 6-foot-2, and should match up nicely against Penn State’s own true freshman standout cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields. Castro-Fields stands at 6-foot-even, and has an interception plus three pass deflections on the season. If the two see each other throughout the afternoon — which they’re expected to — then you’ll be in for a show.
Tight end Jerome Washington — the featured cog in former Minnesota head coach and current Rutgers offensive coordinator Jerry Kill’s scheme — leads the Scarlet Knights in receiving with 24 catches for 253 yards and a touchdown. He’s a seam-splitter, and at 240 lbs., involved heavily in the run-blocking game. Also, the guy can focus. The Miami transfer (noticing a trend here?) hauled in what looked like a surefire interception against Nebraska a few weeks ago for arguably one of the season’s best catches:
— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) September 23, 2017
Coming off a close win over Maryland, the Scarlet Knights are up against a tall task Saturday in terms of stopping a Penn State offense eager to reestablish its balance. Junior linebackers Trevor Morris and Deonte Roberts lead the defense in tackles with 78 and 72, respectively.
Although Rutgers is second-to-last in the Big Ten in rush defense, giving up just shy of 180 yards on the ground per game, defensive coordinator Jay Niemann’s secondary has recorded 11 interceptions — good for third in the conference. The Scarlet Knights have had a tough time getting to the quarterback this season, posting only 12 sacks through nine games.
Kevin Wilkins leads the defense with five tackles for loss, while redshirt senior Kemoko Turay is also one heck of an athlete along the defensive line. He should make things difficult for Penn State’s offensive line — a unit that’s keen to get its running game back on track. Strong safety Kiy Hester paces the defensive backs with three picks and will likely draw plenty of attention from Trace McSorley.
Hester — who’s play with the ball in his hands slightly resembles that of another famous Hester — leads the team in interceptions, and has had two returned for touchdowns. He’s also tied for the team lead in pass deflections with nine, making him a threat in center field. He’ll likely try and notch a third touchdown in Beaver Stadium, and will likely be all over the place defensively.