For almost the entire game in front of a hostile, record-breaking crowd against Rutgers, time was not an ally of Penn State’s. Star quarterback Christian Hackenberg literally saw red on almost every dropback in the pocket, unleashing hurried throw after another. Every potential game-changing play its defense made would be continuously met by maddening profligacy on offense, keeping the Scarlet Knights in the lead and on course for a historic win. Time was running out.
But when the time called for it most, Penn State made the most of the little time it had to make amends. Bill Belton’s 5-yard touchdown run with 1:13 remaining was enough to give Penn State a 13-10 win over Rutgers in the first conference game for the Scarlet Knights as a member of the Big Ten Conference. Free safety Ryan Keiser intercepted Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova to seal the game on the ensuing drive, the fifth turnover the Nittany Lions forced in the game – all on interceptions.
In a game that would have made old school Big Ten purists smile from ear-to-ear – and many current college football fans yawn incessantly due to boredom and sloppy play – Penn State made just enough plays at the end to go to 3-0 to start a season for the first time since 2009. Taking over possession with 3:02 left in the fourth and staring at a 10-6 deficit and a cacophony of noise behind then from the Rutgers student section, Hackenberg, who threw for 309 yards but no touchdowns, found Eugene Lewis on a slant pattern to the left, with Lewis shedding a couple of tacklers almost immediately after securing the ball and raced to the Rutgers’ 27 for a 53-yard gain. But in a game that featured too many mistakes to count, Penn State managed to commit a holding penalty three plays later on a play that ended with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Hackenberg to receiver DaeSean Hamilton. On the ensuing play, a third-and-12 after the penalty mark-off, Lewis again made a key grab, this time on a lob pass down the left sideline, to set up Penn State with a first-and-goal, with Belton providing the winning score two plays later.
In all honesty, this was a game that Rutgers should have won, despite the fact that it was outgained 373-294 and had five giveaways. Not only did its defense drop Hackenberg five times, it made the sophomore signal caller repeatedly uncomfortable, as he had to throw on the run and out of the pocket for the majority of the game. The special teams also came to the fore, blocking a first-quarter field goal and a second-quarter punt. Those rejections were the 38th and 39th blocked kicks for Rutgers since the beginning of the 2009 season, the most in the FBS in that span. Rutgers turned the blocked field goal into the first score of the game, as a 10-play, 80-yard drive was capped off by Nova’s weaving 14-yard touchdown run up the middle to give the Scarlet Knights a 7-0 lead. Rutgers’ lead was 10-0 at halftime after a Kyle Federico 32-yard field goal 12 seconds from intermission.
What turned everything around was Nova, the mercurial senior whose play can go from spectacular to rancid in a week’s span. Tonight, with stud running back Paul James held in check (51 yards on 14 carries), Rutgers decided to put the game in the hands of their signal caller, who proceeded to complete every sixth pass to a Penn State defender. Surprisingly enough, the five interceptions only resulted in three total points for Penn State. The end result of the ensuing drives after Nova’s first four picks included a punt, the blocked field goal, a made field goal and a seven-yard punt by Hackenberg on a quick kick. Nova now has 45 career interceptions.
Even more disappointing for the Scarlet Knights was to lose in front of the largest home crowd ever to witness a Rutgers football game (53,774), many of them were given white towels to wave during the game. Along with it being a night game as well as the presence of many Penn State supporters coming in from neighboring Pennsylvania and from the New York City area, the feel in the stadium was definitely that of a game between bitter rivals. The game may yet turn into one of the East’s best rivalries, something the region desperately needs to rekindle the magic and recruit the talent needed to revive college football in the area. Having Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood not refer to the opponent by their name in the lead-up to the game this week, instead calling Penn State, “The team from Pennsylvania,” didn’t hurt the burgeoning vitriol between the football teams.
Over time, given the recruiting battles over top-level recruits in the fertile grounds of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, this could be one of the better regional rivalries in the country. Tonight, it was Penn State that had just enough time to get the upper hand.
[Cover photo (Trevor Williams interception) courtesy of Alex Goodlett/Getty Images]