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Rutgers Breakdown: Who Are The Key Players?

In case you haven’t quite figured it out yet, the game against Rutgers this Saturday at 8 p.m. in Piscataway, N.J., is shaping up to be a pivotal moment for both teams.

With Penn State receiving news this week that the team will immediately be eligible for postseason play, the Nittany Lions will be extra motivated to build off a solid 2-0 start to the season. Rutgers is playing against its first conference opponent as a new member of the Big Ten, and the program is fired up for a chance to prove it belongs.

The last time we saw Penn State play on the road, it walked away with a shocking 31-24 upset over No. 14 Wisconsin, with true freshman Christian Hackenberg throwing for 339 yards and four touchdowns. Prior to that game, the Lions were winless in true road games against conference opponents under Hackenberg.

For the Nittany Lions to have success this season, they simply must play better on the road, where they were outscored 131-48 in three losses away from the friendly confines of Beaver Stadium in 2013.

Against Rutgers, that means stopping an offense that’s full of veteran playmakers. For all the grief the team received this week, the Scarlet Knights boast a frightening ability to light up the scoreboard.

Let’s take a closer look at “Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers, Rutgers and then maybe a little bit more Rutgers.”

Paul James, RB – Simply stated, the Scarlet Knights’ offense goes as James goes. Through the first two contests, James boasts an average of 108 yards per game, thanks to a ridiculous 29-carry, 173-yard, three-touchdown performance in the season-opening win over Washington State.

Against Howard in Week 2, James was limited to only 43 yards on 13 carries, but the star running back added a pair of long touchdown runs on swing passes out of the backfield. On such a play, a 31-yard catch-and-run late in the first half, James leaves two Howard defenders grasping for air as he knifes down the sideline for a touchdown.

As that play and many others have shown, James has a tremendous ability to make plays in space, and gain yards after contact. He’s an elusive back, and defenders need to account for both his speed and power before making a tackle.

While James has proven to be a dangerous weapon in the passing game, running the ball is his bread and butter. The junior from Glassboro, N.J. uses every bit of his 6-foot, 205-pound. frame to punish defenders, and while he can make people miss in the open field, he’s at his best when running north-south. He’s explosive and has scary breakaway speed, evident on a 56-yard run against the Cougars. One cut, and he’s gone.

Gary Nova, QB – As any Rutgers fan will tell you, you’re not quite sure what you’re going to get from Nova from week to week. Entering his fourth season as the team’s on-again, off-again starting quarterback, he’s put together an impressive first two weeks. The Elmwood Park, N.J. native has completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 563 yards and six touchdowns to only one interception.

Interceptions are what have proven costly for Nova and the Scarlet Knights for as long as he’s been the starter. Nova has a tendency to stare down receivers, and often locks his eyes to one side of the field while reading the defense. In his career, Nova’s thrown three or more interceptions in a single game five different times, including a nightmarish six interceptions against Kent State in 2012 –  a game in which Rutgers was looking to advance to 10-0.

Through the first two weeks, he’s looked calm in the pocket, and shown a great touch on deep balls. His first pass of the season was a 78-yard touchdown pass that hit wideout Leonte Carroo in stride down the sideline. Penn State’s secondary is much-improved, especially with a healthy Ryan Keiser in the lineup, but Nova’s skills are still frightening.

Leonte Carroo, WR – Penn State fans probably know Carroo as the player who responded to Bill Belton’s “big time football” comments by telling the Asbury Park Press that the upcoming game “is going to change New Jersey and Rutgers football forever.”

Carroo caught 28 passes for 478 yards last year, a respectable total, but where he really excelled was in the red zone. The junior hauled in nine total touchdowns, with five coming inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

This season, Carroo has already racked up 195 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches, averaging 24.4 yards per catch. The Edison, N.J. native uses his top-end speed (he ran a 4.4 in high school) to get open down the field, creating big plays for the Rutgers offense.

Kemoko Turay, DE – The 6-foot-5, 235-pound sophomore defensive end spent most of last season on the scout team, learning the basics of football. Seriously. Before signing his letter of intent with Rutgers, he spent his days watching YouTube clips to learn the position. He didn’t even know what the word “sack” meant. After three sacks in the Scarlet-White spring game, Turay began to turn heads.

During the first game against Washington State, the Newark, N.J. native recorded two sacks, bursting onto the national scene. He followed the next week with a 1.5 sack performance against Howard.

“He’s a guy who could be very disruptive rushing the passer,” coach Kyle Flood recently told NJ.com, “and he’s got a skill set that we really haven’t had here.”

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About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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