Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, September 14, 2014
NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Something happened on the way to this big red Rutgers party to celebrate the first Big Ten game in Scarlet Knights history. Penn State crashed it. And in doing so, the Nittany Lions look like a team primed for a breakout-not Rutgers.
In 60 minutes of often inglorious football, Penn State flipped the script in a 13-10 win before a pulsating and record High Point Solutions Stadium crowd.
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"We got a gritty group of guys who never stop believing," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "We have a lot of work to do, but we got a win today. The defense was huge all game. We didn't take advantage in the first half, but we did in the second."
All week, the build-up for this contest was enormous. Many billed it as the biggest game at Rutgers since its monumental win over Louisville in 2006. They still talk about that Thursday night in November along the banks of the Raritan River when No. 15 Rutgers knocked off No. 3 Louisville, 28-25, to move to 9-0. Fans rushed the field, knowing that when they went to bed that night-if they ever did-RU was a national title contender.
"This is the new Rutgers," said fullback Brian Leonard in the aftermath of victory back then. "This is a dream of mine."
But Penn State wasn?t going to play along and become another part of Rutgers? history in its first trip to New Brunswick since 1955. Now, it?s Penn State that has the look of a darling in its quest for relevancy in the Big Ten East.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Nittany Lions. Franklin was taking over a program from Bill O?Brien that was still crawling out of a hole created by NCAA sanctions. Depth issues are supposed to short-circuit this team. Well, three games in, and Penn State is 3-0-and dreaming big.
Credit quarterback Christian Hackenberg, whose legacy continues to grow. He polished an already glossy resume by engineering his second fourth-quarter comeback victory in three games this season. This sophomore has the look of a franchise quarterback who appears destined to be a top-10 NFL pick at worst-and perhaps the No. 1 pick in the draft when he comes out.
Under duress most the evening from a relentless Rutgers? rush, Hackenberg ducked, scrambled and generally bought time en route to getting sacked five times and hurried numerous others. He also tossed a pick. Still, Hackenberg completed 25-of-44 passes for 309 yards. And none of his completions was bigger than a 53-yarder to Geno Lewis in the final Penn State drive that set up Bill Belton?s game-winning touchdown plunge from five yards. It came with 1:49 left and was the first time PSU led all night.
Don?t look now, but the Nittany Lions could be a contender in the East. Up next is a visit from UMass followed by a home game vs. Northwestern. Then, there is a bye before a big game at Michigan on Oct. 11.
This suddenly is a season of great possibilities for Penn State. When the campaign dawned, the Nittany Lions were still banned from a bowl as part of the Jerry Sandusky sanctions. But that penalty was lifted last week, clearing the way for Penn State to not just go to a bowl-but also to compete for the Big Ten championship.
Yes, issues persist. The offensive line still struggles, incurring some big holding penalties on this night. And the running game has issues gaining traction. On this night, the Nittany Lions ran 33 times for 64 yards. On defense, depth at linebacker is worrisome. And overall team speed remains subpar.
Regardless, this team?s confidence and belief is as strong as anyone else in the Big Ten. And those intangibles-coupled with Hackenberg?s superb talents-make this a dangerous team.
Could Penn State win the East? That seems like a tall order with Michigan State standing in the way. But it?s not far-fetched to think that the Nittany Lions could be the second-best team in the East.
While Penn State plays at Michigan, it has home games vs. Ohio State and Michigan State. In fact, the visit from the Spartans is the season finale. Could it end up being a de factor Big Ten East title game?
As for Rutgers, it will be interesting to see where it goes from here. The program had so much energy and emotion invested in this game.
?We are a hurting team right now,? said Rutgers coach Kyle Flood. ?They made one more play than we did.?
The Scarlet Knights were the consensus pick to finish last in the ultra-tough Big Ten East. Why not? Rutgers struggled down the stretch in 2013, losing six of its last eight games. How were the Scarlet Knights going to manage an October schedule that features a visit from Michigan and trips to Ohio State and Nebraska? November isn?t much better, with a visit from Wisconsin and trip to Michigan State. Many were writing RU?s epitaph before the season even began.
This loss tonight shouldn?t sully hopes for Rutgers, which will take a 2-1 record to Navy next week. But to get back on a roll, the Scarlet Knights need better play from their quarterback.
While Hackenberg largely excelled, Rutgers? Gary Nova struggled. He completed just 15-of-30 passes for 192 yards and was sacked three times. But worst of all, he tossed five interceptions, including the game-sealer in the final seconds. Nova was supposed to have been past days like this while working with new coordinator Ralph Friedgen. But, Nova looked a lot like the quarterback who lost his job late last season.
But Flood isn?t prepared to make a change.
?Not yet,? he said. ?But we will evaluate everything. When you lose the turnover battle, it?s hard to win the game.?
Penn State won. Now, it can keep dreaming.
?A lot of real positives,? said Franklin. ?We are going to enjoy this win tonight. These night games make it difficult to enjoy. Our enjoyment will be on the plane ride back. Then we will wake up tomorrow and be very honest with ourselves and be very critical of things we can get better. We?ll clean up the Rutgers and get started on UMass.?
This is turning into a fun story.
|About Tom Dienhart
|BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.
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