Penn State seeks to be more physical and focused vs. Rutgers

SPORTS FBC-MICHIGAN-PENNST 1 DE
Penn State offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez blocks Michigan’s Maurice Hurst (73) on Oct. 21. Gonzalez says the Nittany Lions’ offensive linemen have to have more of a “finishing mindset.”

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – James Franklin offered a simple checklist when he took the podium for his postgame press conference last week after Penn State’s loss to Michigan State: Be more physical. Be more focused.

But there was more to it than that as the 16th-ranked Nittany Lions (No. 14 in the College Football Playoff rankings) prepared this week for Saturday’s game against Rutgers at Beaver Stadium. The head coach wanted to get back to the way his team was playing during its 7-0 start, before losing to Ohio State and the Spartans by a total of four points.

“I’ve had some conversations with people, players, on what we need to do to be more physical in the running game, and defensively playing with the type of passion and pride and flying around like we have,” Franklin said. “Then on special teams, it’s obviously just being a little more consistent. I like where we’re at.”

Franklin acknowledged that the coaches have added “a few little wrinkles on offense and a few little wrinkles on defense,” and did some self-scouting on what they thought could help the team.

The Nittany Lions (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) have not been physical enough on either side of the football, according to their coach. They rushed for 91 and 65 yards the last two weeks, which means Saquon Barkley wasn’t getting any room to run, and their pass rush put minimal pressure on quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Brian Lewerke.

Steven Gonzalez, the Lions’ 341-pound left guard, said improving physicality has to be the mind-set of everyone on the line.

“I think we just have to approach practice today and the rest of the week and the rest of the season with a more finishing mind-set,” Gonzalez said earlier this week. “Trying to finish every play; don’t stop until the whistle. That will be the mind-set we’ll be implementing more and more as the weeks go on.”

Franklin called physical play “a mentality more than anything” because players do not finish blocks to the ground in practice.

“I think sometimes we’re happy with just blocking the guy as well as we think we need to do to get the job done, rather than sending a message and trying to finish a guy and pancake blocks and things like that,” he said. “The fine line is understanding you’ve got to practice at a very high level from an intensity standpoint but in the games, you’ve got to take it to the next level.”

The Lions, whose chances at a repeat Big Ten championship or College Football Playoff berth have all but vanished but who still have an opportunity for a New Year’s Six bowl, will seek to do that against Rutgers (4-5, 3-3). The Scarlet Knights, who have won three of their last four games, have relied more on their ground game lately.

Gus Edwards, a 235-pound redshirt senior, has rushed for 630 yards and six touchdowns, and has capable backup help in senior Robert Martin and freshman Raheem Blackshear (Archbishop Wood). Rutgers has 19 rushing TDs compared to eight all of last year.

“We want to be able to run the football,” coach Chris Ash said. “When you can do that with fresh legs and rotate guys, obviously that makes it more challenging for a defense, especially late in a game when you’ve got a guy that’s fresh versus a guy that’s taken 30 to 40 carries throughout a full game.”

Rutgers at Penn State

After two gut-wrenching losses on the road, Penn State (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) returns home to take on Rutgers (4-5, 3-3). The Nittany Lions have fallen to No. 14 in the College Football Playoff rankings and No. 16 in the Associated Press poll. They still are mathematically alive to win the Big Ten East but their losses to Ohio State and Michigan State leave them at a disadvantage in the tiebreaker, meaning some strange results will have to happen in the final three weeks of the regular season. They seemingly would have to win their last three games to stay alive for a New Year’s Six bowl. Penn State will look for better play in the trenches on both sides of the football for a better rushing attack and more of a pass rush. The Scarlet Knights have won three of their last four games, including last weekend’s come-from-behind 31-24 victory over Maryland. Their offense is led by an improved running game and their defense has allowed 24.9 points per game while limiting opponents to less than 32 percent on third down.

How to follow and watch the game

When: Saturday, noon.

Where: Beaver Stadium, State College.

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: 990-AM, WNTP; 1440-AM, WNPV

Twitter: @joejulesinq, @_jillbeckman

Coaches

Penn State, James Franklin (4th season, 32-17; overall, 56-32); Chris Ash (2nd season and overall, 6-15).

Key players

Penn State: RB Saquon Barkley, 5-11, 230, Jr. (864 yards rushing, 5.7-yard average per carry, 39 receptions for 504 yards, 30.2-yard average on kickoff returns, 195.7-yard average in all-purpose yardage, 14 total TDs); QB Trace McSorley, 6-0, 195, R-Jr. (64.2 percent completion rate, 2,452 yards, 19 TDs, 8 interceptions, 8 TDs rushing); TE Mike Gesicki, 6-6, 250, Sr. (38 catches, 374 yards, 4 TDs); WR DaeSean Hamilton, 6-1, 206, R-Sr. (36 receptions, 606 yards, 6 TDs); WR Juwan Johnson, 6-4, 226, R-So. (32 receptions, 389 yards, 1 TD); LB Jason Cabinda, 6-1, 234, Sr. (63 tackles, 4 tackles for loss); FS Marcus Allen, 6-2, 207, Sr. (56 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 1 interception); DE Shareef Miller, 6-5, 257, R-So. (8 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks); CB Amani Oruwariye, 6-1, 209, R-Jr. (3 interceptions); K Tyler Davis, 5-11, 183, R-Sr. (8-15 field goals, long 47).

Rutgers: RB Gus Edwards, 6-1, 235, R-Sr. (630 yards rushing, 4.5-yard average per carry, 6 TDs.); QB Giovanni Rescigno, 6-3, 228, R-Jr. (50.8 percent completion rate, 407 yards, 2 TDs); TE Jerome Washington, 6-4, 258, Jr. (24 catches, 253 yards, 1 TD); WR Janarion Grant, 5-10, 178, R-Sr. (16 catches, 167 yards, 1 TD, 21.1-yard average on kickoff returns, 10.7-yard average on punt returns); LB Trevor Morris, 6-1, 232, Jr. (77 tackles); LB Deonte Roberts, 6-1, 235, Jr. (72 tackles); SS Kiy Hester, 6-0, 208, R-Jr. (3 interceptions); K Andrew Harte, 6-0, 190, R-Sr. (5-8 field goals, long 50).

Head to head

Penn State holds a 25-2 lead in the series, including a 39-0 win last year at Piscataway, N.J. This is the fourth straight season they’ve met in the Big Ten since Rutgers began play in the conference in 2014.

Penn State’s upcoming games

Saturday, Nov. 18, Nebraska, TBD

Saturday, Nov. 25, at Maryland, TBD

Bowl game, TBD