Penn State Preview: Rutgers

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 10 Penn State (9-2, 6-2 Big Ten) vs. Rutgers (2-9, 0-8 Big Ten), 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on Big Ten Network. 

Venue: Beaver Stadium 

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 37 degrees with a wintry mix possible 

The line: Penn State – 40.5

Last week: Penn State lost at Ohio State. Rutgers lost at home to Michigan State 

All-time series: Penn State leads 27-2

Last meeting (2018): Behind a stellar performance from the Penn State defense, Trace McSorley became the winningest quarterback in program history with last year’s 20-7 victory over Rutgers. McSorley threw two touchdowns to Pat Freiermuth in the win. 

Throwback classic (2015): We caught up with longtime editor of The Football Letter, John Black, to help recount Penn State’s first Stripe Out game, a 28-3 win over the Scarlet Knights. 

Overview: Penn State’s College Football Playoff hopes are all but over, but there’s still plenty to play for when the Nittany Lions host the Scarlet Knights this Saturday. Checking in at No. 10 in the latest Playoff rankings, Penn State is in a great position to play in a New Year’s Six bowl. Rutgers, meanwhile, limps to the finish line once again, having already fired head coach Chris Ash earlier this season. 

Penn State wins if: The Nittany Lions handle business. There’s a reason Penn State is a near six-touchdown favorite. Rutgers has been awful and the Nittany Lions should be eager to put the disappointing loss to the Buckeyes behind them. 

Rutgers wins if: We’ve tried to come up with a scenario where the Scarlet Knights somehow catch the Nittany Lions sleeping in this regular season finale, but it’s just not going to happen. The best Rutgers could hope for is to keep it relatively close until halftime. 

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Count On: A lot of emotions for Penn State seniors. Senior Day is always a bittersweet moment for college athletes. These Nittany Lion seniors deserve all the credit in the world. They’ve led Penn State to a remarkable four-year run, which with a win on Saturday, will see the program tally at-least 10 wins in three of the past four years. That’s a heck of an achievement. 

Keep an eye on: The Penn State quarterback situation. At his Tuesday press conference, head coach James Franklin said starting QB Sean Clifford would probably be a game-time decision. Knowing Clifford’s competitiveness, he’s going to want to be out there one last time in Beaver Stadium this year. Still, even if Clifford does play, expect Will Levis to get a healthy share of the reps, especially if the Nittany Lions are up big early.  

Trivia tidbit: The first matchup between these two programs came all the way back in 1918. The teams met on Nov. 9, 1918, just two days after the German armistice effectively ended World War I. The Scarlet Knights came away with the win at New Beaver Field, 26-3 

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 42, Rutgers 14

Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 45, Rutgers 7

Penn State Preview: Ohio State

Penn State @ Ohio State (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Nittany Lions head to The Horseshoe on Saturday for a Top-10 battle with the Buckeyes. Photo credit: Steve Manuel/The Football Letter

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: at Ohio Stadium, noon kickoff, broadcast on FOX.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 43 degrees, partly sunny and chilly.

The line: Penn State +18

Last week: Penn State outlasted Indiana 34-27, while Ohio State continued its unbeaten season, clobbering Rutgers 56-21.

All-time series: Ohio State leads 19-14.

Last meeting (2018): Ohio State clipped Penn State for a 27-26 victory at Beaver Stadium.

Throwback classic (2008): In a matchup mirror Saturday’s showdown, the Nittany Lions upset the Buckeyes in battle of Top-10 teams. Penn State then won the Big Ten and appeared in the Rose Bowl.

Overview: A late-November game in Columbus with the Big Ten East Division on the line. This is what fans have been looking forward to — and the players and coaches working toward — all season. The Buckeyes have stood near the top of the national rankings all season, not missing Urban Meyer. First-year coach Ryan Day and QB-transfer Justin Fields have the Buckeyes looking as good as they have over the last few decades, making Penn State at least two-touchdown underdogs in most scenarios.

The Nittany Lions are finishing up a brutal stretch, playing their fifth ranked opponent in six games. Win Saturday, and Penn State will go into the Big Ten championship as the favored team to win the conference title and head to either the College Football Playoff or Rose Bowl.

In a season where nine or 10 wins seemed like the ceiling, Penn State seems to be ahead of schedule — next year looked to be the year that at the CFP was in focus. But the team has been shattering expectations since James Franklin arrived, so don’t be surprised if Saturday’s game is competitive well into the fourth quarter.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions can dramatically slow down Fields. The former Penn State commit transferred to the Buckeyes before the season, leading arguably the best team in the nation — LSU and Ohio State are clearly the top two teams. The Nittany Lions’ pass defense has been worrisome the past two weeks, with the secondary looking downright confused at times. Whether it’s blown coverage, bad angles, or missed tackles, both Minnesota and Indiana moved the ball throughout the game.

Ohio State wins if: the Buckeyes force at least two turnovers. Lately, Sean Clifford has had a tendency to give away the ball, something which he rarely did earlier in the season. Indiana stunted a promising drive last week with a sack-fumble combo, for example. Penn State does have some margin for error. Though it’s difficult to see the Nittany Lions winning while also making a handful of mistakes. Penn State doesn’t have to play perfect, though close.

Keep an eye on: Yetur Gross-Matos and the defensive line. One of the most disruptive d-line groups in the country can be the difference Saturday, not only for pressuring Fields but also for helping the secondary. If Fields gets comfortable in the pocket, there probably isn’t a secondary in the country that can stop him.

Trivia tidbit:  While both programs have played in 49 bowl games — ranking in the Top 10 nationally all-time — Penn State holds the advantage in postseason winning percentage. The Nittany Lions hold a 29-16-2 mark, while the Buckeyes are 24-25.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Ohio State 34, Penn State 24

Vince Lungaro: Ohio State 35, Penn State 24

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Penn State Preview: Indiana

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 9 Penn State (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten) vs. Indiana (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten), noon kickoff, broadcast on ABC. 

Venue: Beaver Stadium 

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 39 degrees and partly cloudy. 

The line: Penn State – 14.5 

Last week: Penn State lost at Minnesota, 31-26. Indiana had a bye week

All-time series: Penn State leads 21-1 

Last meeting (2018): After two gut-wrenching losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, respectively, Penn State rebounded for a 33-28 win in Bloomington. It was not a perfect display by any means, with Indiana out gaining the Nittany Lions on the day, 554-417. Still, it was a much-needed victory given the nature of the two previous defeats that season for Penn State.  

Throwback classic (2010): Indiana got paid. Penn State got the win. The Hoosiers collected a $3 million paycheck to move their 2010 home game against the Nittany Lions to FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, only a 200-mile drive from State College. Penn State won the game, 41-24

Overview: Penn State is going to have to move on quickly from last weekend’s defeat to Minnesota, because the Hoosiers are playing with a lot of confidence right now. Coach Tom Allen has put his team in a position to potentially reach double-digit wins, something rarely done in Bloomington. While the Nittany Lions lost an emotional rollercoaster to the Gophers in Minneapolis, Indiana had a bye week, giving the Hoosiers an extra week to prepare for this one. 

Penn State wins if: The defense can return to form. It’s no secret the defense had a rough day at the office against Minnesota. The Gophers used quick passes and screens to negate the effectiveness of the stalwart Penn State front seven and put more pressure on the Nittany Lions’ secondary. I expect the Hoosiers to use a similar formula to that one. 

That being said, I anticipate Penn State’s defense to be motivated to get things back on track. The return of Antonio Shelton, who was suspended against Minnesota, should provide a nice spark. 

Indiana wins if: It exploits Penn State’s defense as Minnesota did. I really think this game comes down to Indiana’s offense vs. Penn State’s defense. As I mentioned before, the Nittany Lions’ secondary was burned repeatedly against the Golden Gophers. If the Hoosiers can put up points, it puts a lot more pressure on a Penn State offense that’s struggled with consistency all season long. 

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Count On: Pat Freiermuth to have another big day. When Penn State needs a first down, it seems like Sean Clifford always looks for his tight end. He had a career day last week and he’s a matchup nightmare for any opposing defense. Look for him to reach the end zone again Saturday and move atop the all-time touchdowns list by Penn State tight ends. It’s crazy to think he’s only a sophomore. 

Keep an eye on: Justin Shorter. The redshirt freshman has all the physical tools to be a premier wide receiver. He struggled last week with a few drops and hasn’t quite got going in his collegiate career yet. Coach James Franklin has talked about the need for receivers not named KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson to step up and give Clifford another consistent target. 

Trivia tidbit: At 7-2 overall Indiana is off to its best start since 1993. The Hoosiers were off last weekend, but got a nod in the AP poll for the first time since Sept. 20, 1994 and the Amway Coaches Poll for the first time since Oct. 24, 1994.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 35, Indiana 24

Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 28, Indiana 20

Penn State Preview: Minnesota

Penn State v. MINNESOTA (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 4 Penn State (8-0, 5-0) at No. 17 Minnesota (8-0, 5-0).

Venue: TCF Bank Stadium, featuring a capacity of 50,805.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 39 degrees and mostly cloudy.

The line: Penn State –6.5

Last week: Penn State and Minnesota each had a bye.

All-time series: Penn State leads 9-5.

Last meeting (2016): Penn State earned a dramatic 29-26 overtime win at Beaver Stadium, as Saquon Barkley rushed for a touchdown on the Nittany Lions’ first play in the extra session. The play helped spark an impressive run that included a win over No. 2 Ohio State en route to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance for the Nittany Lions.

Throwback classic (1993): Here’s a good trivia tidbit for fans: Minnesota was Penn State’s first Big Ten opponent, with the Nittany Lions earning a 38-20 victory on Sept. 4, 1993, at Beaver Stadium. The teams combined for more than 100 pass attempts, as Bobby Engram became the first player in program history to catch four touchdown passes.

Overview: Coming into the season, there was a good chance Penn State would have a November showdown against another undefeated team. The smart thinking had the game occurring in Columbus, though, not Minneapolis. Ohio State still looms, though Penn State will need to dispatch the upstart Gophers, having an against-the-odds kind of season that the typically ordinary Big Ten West teams have once a decade or so. Northwestern last season and Iowa in 2015 are two recent examples.

Perhaps the most impressive trait for this year’s Nittany Lions squad is their collective focus. They’ve won big and small, stayed ahead in tough environments, started fast, and have also closed out games. There’s a sense they’re truly battle-tested, so whatever they see Saturday against Minnesota, it won’t be anything they haven’t seen before.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions hold the Gophers to less than 28 points. Minnesota’s offense has been consistently good all season, scoring at least 28 each game and averaging 41 in its five Big Ten contests. Gaudy numbers, even if against supposedly the weakest division in the conference and Rutgers and Maryland.

Minnesota wins if: the Gophers’ ground game can wear down the Nittany Lions. Based on numbers, Minnesota can win a shootout, though the Gophers will need to sustain drives that’ll test Penn State’s depth along the defensive line and in the linebacking corp. Minnesota averages 205 rushing yards per game, with Penn State allowing only 68. If the Gophers finish Saturday anywhere near the latter mark, their chances of winning are incredibly slim.

Keep an eye on: the offensive play-calling. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has faced more criticism than you’d think for a team 8-0 and ranked No. 4 — and it’s easy to argue most of that criticism has been unwarranted — and it’ll be interesting to see if he dials up anything unexpected after having an extra week to think over the game plan.

Trivia tidbit: Penn State’s been ranked in the AP poll for 51 straight weeks, the third-longest streak in program history.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 28, Minnesota 24

Vince Lungaro: Penn State 33, Minnesota 20

Penn State Preview: Michigan State

Penn State v. Michigan State 2018 (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 6 Penn State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) vs. Michigan State (4-3, 2-2), 3:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Spartan Stadium, which features a capacity of 75,005.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 54 degrees with some sunshine giving way to clouds and rain at times in the afternoon.

The line: Penn State –6.

Last week: Penn State outlasted Michigan 28-21, while Michigan State had a bye.

All-time series: Michigan State leads 17-15-1.

Last meeting (2018): Michigan State escaped Beaver Stadium with a 21-17 win.

Throwback classic (2016): We’re sending it back only two years, to when Penn State demolished Michigan State 45-12 to win the Big Ten East Division title, before winning the conference championship a week later against Wisconsin in Indianapolis.

Overview: Penn State is 7-0 for the fifth time since joining the Big Ten, and while the Nittany Lions have created a ton of momentum the last few weeks (and really, the entire season), Saturday looms ahead. Michigan State has been outscored 72-10 in its last two games — losses to Ohio State and Wisconsin — and that stat actually makes the Spartans seem more dangerous. That’s how odd this game has been since James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley.

Penn State wins if: Sean Clifford continues to protect the ball. The first-year starter has thrown only two interceptions, and the home crowd will be thirsting for a win Saturday. It’s been almost a month since the Spartans’ last victory, a 40-31 win over Indiana on Sept. 28, and the same amount of time since Michigan State’s last home game. The atmosphere should be plenty rowdy, though won’t be anything Clifford hasn’t seen before. Protect the ball, and stay unbeaten: That’s the mantra Saturday for the superstar sophomore.

Michigan State wins if: the Spartans’ offensive line gives quarterback Brian Lewerke enough time to have downfield success. Penn State ranks fourth nationally in rush defense per game (66 yards), and Michigan State doesn’t appear to have the ground game to make it work Saturday. The Spartans average a respectable 117 yards per contest, though nothing that’ll shift the dynamic of the game. Unless a team can gain 200-plus yards against Penn State, and it doesn’t appear the Spartans have that potential, the air attack is the best bet. That’s what Michigan State will need Saturday.

Keep an eye on: Noah Cain (yes, we’re going with the true freshman running back again). Saturday will be a game when James Franklin might want to (have to?) divert from the running back rotation and go with a bruising back if the game turns into a contest of one grinding possession after another. Cain leads Penn State with 329 rushing yards and six touchdowns.

Trivia tidbit: Though Michigan State leads the overall series, Penn State is ahead 14-9 since joining the Big Ten.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 34, Michigan State 30

Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 30, Michigan State 21

Penn State Preview: Michigan

Purdue 2019 (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel 

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 7 Penn State vs. No. 16 Michigan, 7:30 p.m. kickoff, broadcast on ABC.

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 294-74.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 59 degrees and mostly sunny.

The line: Penn State –8.5.

Last week: Penn State outlasted Iowa 17-12 at Kinnick Stadium, while Michigan thumped Illinois 42-25.

All-time series: Michigan leads 14-8.

Last meeting (2018): Michigan earned a convincing 42-7 victory in Ann Arbor.

Throwback classic (2008): Penn State roared back from an early 10-point deficit to dismantle Michigan 46-17 on the Nittany Lions’ path to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance.

Overview: Penn State’s trajectory had them competing for a spot in the playoff next season, though they’re showing this year is also a reality. Sean Clifford’s acclimated to the offense immediately, distributing the ball efficiently through the air while also remaining a threat to run whenever needed. The defense has been as good as imaginable, with future NFL first-round draft pick Yetur Gross-Matos totaling 18 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 5.5 sacks to lead the group.

Here’s what Michigan has going in its favor. The Wolverines essentially have to win this game, both in terms of the Big Ten race, and their season. They host No. 8 Notre Dame next weekend, and if they lose both contests, then it’ll feel like Harbaugh will never win the Big Ten or national championship at Michigan. Remember, this was supposed to be the year for the Wolverines, with Shea Patterson coming back to run a revamped offense, Ohio State welcoming a new coach, and Penn State moving on from Trace McSorley. So, Saturday means a lot more to Michigan. Not just for this season, though also for their future.

Penn State wins if: the White Out atmosphere is everything it promises to be. The crowd will undoubtedly be loud, disruptive, and influential in the outcome of the game. For all the talk about Xs and Os this week, what’ll be most interesting to see is how Patterson and the Wolverine offensive line handle what’ll be the toughest environment they’ll play in this year, and maybe in their collegiate careers.

Michigan wins if: Josh Gattis engineers the best offensive performance of his career. After working with James Franklin for a number of years, including at Penn State as the wide receivers coach, Gattis now serves as Michigan’s offensive coordinator. The Wolverines have produced big numbers, albeit against Rutgers and Illinois, though have looked fairly stagnant during other parts of the season (Wisconsin, Army). Penn State features perhaps the best front-seven and overall defense in the country, so Gattis needs to show something we haven’t seen yet this season: a big-time performance against a marquee opponent.

Keep an eye on: Noah Cain. While Penn State’s running back rotation has continued through thte first half of the season, Cain constantly stands out. He was in the game during the Nittany Lions’ season-defining drive last week against Iowa, capping off a scoring drive and giving Penn State enough cushion to hold off the Hawkeyes. Cain’s a true freshman, though has shown he can handle the spotlight.

Trivia tidbit: Penn State stands 6-0 for the fourth time since 2000.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 31, Michigan 21

Vince Lungaro: Penn State 24, Michigan 14

Penn State Preview: Purdue

Penn State v.Pitt (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

 

Game details: No. 12/11 Penn State vs. Purdue, noon kickoff, broadcast on ESPN.

 

Venue: Beaver Stadium, where Penn State boasts an all-time record of 293-74.

 

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 60 degrees with plenty of sunshine.

 

The line: Penn State – 28.5

 

Last week: Penn State dominated Maryland 59-0, while Purdue dropped a home contest to Minnesota 38-31.

 

All-time series: Penn State leads 14-3-1.

 

Last meeting (2016): Penn State blasted Purdue 62-24 in West Lafayette, overcoming a sluggish first half to earn the convincing win. This game is also noteworthy since it came right after the Nittany Lions’ upset of No. 2 Ohio State, setting up Penn State’s run to a Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl.

 

Throwback classic (2004): The White Out is now widely regarded as one of the best environments in college football, and perhaps all of sports. But back in 2004, it was a novelty, with the student section wearing all white for the first time during a 20-13 loss to undefeated ninth-ranked Purdue (the first stadium-wide White Out came years later).

 

Overview: Win Saturday, and Penn State sets itself up for a highly compelling four-game stretch against Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, and Minnesota — the Golden Gophers have started the season 4-0. More immediate, the Boilermakers enter this weekend with a disappointing 1-3 mark, and head coach Jeff Brohm announced earlier in the week that star wide receiver Rondale Moore will be out after suffering an injury last weekend. Without him, it’s difficult to see Purdue scoring 30-plus points, a mark that Penn State should surpass; the Nittany Lions are averaging 50 per game so far this year. Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar will also sit out after being injured on the same play as Moore, so the Boilermakers need a whole lot to go right for them to pull off an upset on Homecoming weekend in Happy Valley.

 

Penn State wins if: the defense continues to create mayhem. Penn State’s given up only 30 points through four games, and with the offense having the potential to 40-plus seemingly every week, even a workmanlike performance Saturday should be enough to keep Penn State unbeaten.

 

Purdue wins if: the Boilermakers can make Sean Clifford uncomfortable. For as much as success as Clifford (and the offense) has had this year, he did look rattled, at times, when Pitt pressured him last month. Purdue clearly can’t win a shootout, so the Boilers’ best chance is to grind out the clock and limit Clifford’s opportunities when the Nittany Lions have the ball.

 

Keep an eye on: Penn State’s third down success. Last week, the Nittany Lions converted its first seven third down opportunities and finished 9-of-13.

 

Trivia tidbit: Thirteen Nittany Lions caught at least one reception last week against Maryland, the second time Penn State receivers have hit that mark (Idaho).

 

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 45, Purdue 14 

 

Vincent Lungaro: Penn State 41, Purdue 10