Previewing The Enemy: Rutgers Scarlet Knights
After enduring its third one-score loss of the season to No. 6 Michigan this past weekend, Penn State football will attempt to close out the regular-season homestand with a victory on Senior Day.
While the Nittany Lions won’t play another ranked opponent in their next matchup, Rutgers is set to invade Beaver Stadium at an opportune time, needing just one additional win to clinch its first bowl berth since 2014.
Sitting at 5-5, the Scarlet Knights earned their second conference victory a week ago in a 38-3 drubbing over Indiana. With a signature win still looming in Greg Schiano’s second stint in Piscataway, let’s take a look at the squad hoping to play spoiler to Penn State’s home-field finale on Saturday.
In Schiano’s second season as head coach following the firing of Chris Ash in 2019, the Scarlet Knights have already won five games, the most victories over a season-long span since the program reached the eight-win mark eight years ago. With a 2-5 conference record, Schiano’s crew currently sits tied for fifth in the Big Ten East standings with two regular-season contests reaming.
Following a three-game winning streak to begin the campaign, including a pivotal 17-7 triumph over regional rival Syracuse, Rutgers ran into the Big Ten East buzzsaw by facing three ranked teams in a row. In consecutive matchups against Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State, the Scarlet Knights were outscored 103-39, which consequently brought their previously-unblemished record back to the .500 mark.
Despite losing games to Ohio State and Michigan State convincingly, the Scarlet Knights took the now top-10 Wolverines down to the wire in a seven-point loss at the Big House in late September. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s unit held Michigan’s rushing elite tandem of Blake Corum and Hasan Haskins to 68 and 41 yards on the ground, respectively. The valiant effort halted in the fourth quarter with a costly turnover on downs and a fumble in the offense’s last two possessions, sealing the 20-13 victory for Michigan.
Since its brutal stretch, Rutgers has gone 2-2 over its past four matchups, featuring road wins over Illinois and Indiana. The Scarlet Knights took down Bret Belima’s squad the week following Illinois’ season-defining nine overtime victory in Beaver Stadium.
After the Penn State defense was gashed for an insurmountable 357 rushing yards against the Illini, Rutgers limited the Illinois ground attack to just 107 yards on 30 carries in the 20-14 triumph.
While Rutgers lacks the level of blue-chip talent comparable to the Nittany Lions, the Scarlet Knights are well-coached and disciplined, as shown by their sharp inclining trajectory since posting a 2-10 record just two years ago. Penn State should be able to handle Rutgers easier than several other established divisional foes, but Schiano has proven that his program is no longer a bottom-feeder in a short stint at the helm.
Coordinator Sean Gleeson’s side of the ball is commanded by fifth-year signal-caller Noah Vedral, a two-time transfer who entered the program by way of UCF as a freshman and Nebraska during his sophomore season. The veteran has started all 10 games under center this season for the Scarlet Knights and currently ranks eighth in the conference in total passing yards.
With 1,590 yards and seven touchdowns through the air, Vedral isn’t flashy but effective in placing the rock in the hands of his playmakers. His favorite target, senior Bo Melton, is responsible for 523 yards on 48 catches, including three scores. Although the combination of Vedral and Melton have found success, the Rutgers passing offense sits at eleventh in the conference ranks.
Despite Vedral’s leadership certainly giving the Scarlet Knights a steady presence under center, the offense is centered around the run-game, an area in which the Penn State defense has struggled throughout the year. As a team, the Scarlet Knights average 146.3 rushing yards per outing, with the majority of the output coming from Isaih Pacheco.
In his fourth season manning the backfield, Pacheco has totaled 554 yards on the ground through 146 carries. The New Jersey native has a track record of shining in defining moments, with a 107-yard performance against Michigan and a 91-yard effort in Rutgers’ win over Illinois.
Aside from Pacheco, Vedral also possesses the Rutgers offense with another threat through his ability to extend drives with his legs. With 267 rushing yards, the veteran quarterback ranks second among all Big Ten gunslingers in rushing yards, trailing only Nebraska’s Adrain Martinez.
For reference, Vedral’s season rushing total is only 26 yards short of Noah Cain’s yearlong yardage total on the ground, and 108 yards behind Keyvone Lee’s output, showing just how ineffective the Nittany Lions’ best backfield combination has been on the ground.
In conference play, the Rutgers attack has been anything but explosive. Through seven games, the offense has averaged just over 15 points per contest, good for the 11th-highest-scoring unit in the conference. However, with the fifth-best offense in terms of controlling the time of possession, Schiano’s goal to grind opponents out through long sustaining drives has proven to be successful, rather than scoring in a quick-hitting fashion.
Although the Rutgers defense currently sits as the fourth-worst unit in the Big Ten, the group only gives up 22.7 points per game. While the Scarlet Knights perform better against the pass than the run, linebacker Olakunle Fatuksi will provide Penn State’s backfield with a stout challenge before breaking towards the second level.
With 81 tackles, Fatuksi has registered the fourth most stops among all Big Ten defenders. With an additional 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, the senior was recently recognized as a Butkus Award semifinalist, an honor gifted annually to the nation’s top linebacker.
In the Scarlet Knights’ most recent showing against Indiana, Fatuksi was sidelined with a hamstring injury but is expected to make his return on Saturday in Happy Valley. In his absence, reserve linebacker Drew Singleton stepped up by posting 10 combined tackles and helped limit the Hoosiers to just 259 yards of total offense.
On the backend, Schiano’s unit is led by Max Melton, a first-year starter and one of the new coaching staff’s highest-performing recruits in its most recent class. As a freshman, Melton averages the second-most pass breakups per outing in the Big Ten, despite only seeing seven games of action.
Following an early-season suspension and an arm injury suffered in the first quarter of week seven against Northwestern, Melton has exploded since his return to the field. In his latest three games, the New Jersey product erupted for 10 tackles, including one for a loss, and one interception.
After facing one of the nation’s most ferocious rush defenses a week ago against Michigan, Penn State will square off against Rutgers’ No. 73 run-stopping group on Senior Day. Following Keyvone Lee’s season-best 88 yard performance on 20 carries at the hands of the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions will likely attempt to establish the run as its main offensive force in order to limit Sean Clifford’s exposure to further injury.
Valentino Ambrosio handles the kickoff and field goal duties for the Scarlet Knights, while fourth-year veteran Adam Korsak maintains the punting responsibilities.
As a junior, Ambrosio has nailed 11 of 15 field goals, good for the seventh-highest conversion percentage in the conference. In crunch time against Michigan, Ambrosio hit a season-long 40-yard field goal, bringing the game to a one-score margin.
The strong suit of the Scarlet Knights’ special teams crew lies in its punting, courtesy of Korsak. The Melbourne, Australia native currently sits at third in the Big Ten with a 46.3 yard-per-punt average. Throughout his career, the special teamer has earned the Ray Guy Punter of the Week award six times.
Additionally, Korsak recently made the cut as one of the Ray Guy Award semifinalists, along with Jordan Stout. If both teams struggle to move the ball offensively, both Korsak and Stout could be crucial in the game-long field position battle.
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About the Author
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