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Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights Game Preview and Prediction

Christian Hackenberg

Christian Hackenberg

It’s hard to call Penn State and Rutgers a true rivalry since these two teams have not played since 1995. However, there’s some renewed interest in this series, as Rutgers has joined the Big Ten, and new Penn State coach James Franklin has stated his desire to dominate the region in recruiting. And Rutgers coach Kyle Flood did his best to ignite the rivalry, calling Penn State the “team from Pennsylvania.”

While the focus for both teams is on Saturday night, Penn State and Rutgers had significant off-field announcements this week. The NCAA announced the Nittany Lions’ bowl ban has been lifted, and the program can have 85 scholarship players in 2015. For the Scarlet Knights, coach Kyle Flood signed a contract extension on Thursday, extending his deal for two more years. Flood is just 17-11 in two seasons with the Scarlet Knights, but he is guiding the program through an important transition into the Big Ten.

Penn State owns a 22-2 series edge over Rutgers, with the Scarlet Knights’ last victory coming in 1988.

Penn State at Rutgers

Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Big Ten Network

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Three Things to Watch

1. Quarterback Play

Penn State sophomore Christian Hackenberg could be the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Hackenberg will thrive under coach James Franklin and coordinator John Donovan’s watch, and he has thrown for 773 yards and four scores in two games. The sophomore has room to improve after tossing four picks this year, but Penn State’s receiving corps is in transition with the departure of Allen Robinson. If Hackenberg’s line provides protection, he could pick apart Rutgers’ secondary. The Scarlet Knights ranked as one of the worst in the nation against the pass last year and have allowed five touchdown passes and 700 passing yards so far in 2014. On the other side, Gary Nova is off to a good start for Rutgers. Nova has benefitted from the arrival of Ralph Friedgen as coordinator, completing 67.4 percent of his passes and six touchdowns through two games. Which quarterback will play with more consistency and avoid the big mistake on Saturday night?

2. Penn State’s Offensive Line

The biggest concern for Penn State this preseason was its offensive line. And through two games, this unit still has question marks to answer. The Nittany Lions have allowed three sacks, and rushers are managing only 2.8 yards per carry. Rutgers possesses an underrated front seven, headlined by tackle Darius Hamilton and linebacker Steve Longa. And the Scarlet Knights’ front has been active with eight sacks this year. Can Penn State’s line give Hackenberg time to throw and open holes on the ground for its backs? Talent certainly isn’t an issue at running back for the Nittany Lions, but running room has been limited against Akron and UCF.

3. Penn State’s Defense Against Paul James

Quietly, Rutgers running back Paul James has rushed for 216 yards (5.1 ypc) this season. James has provided needed balance for the Scarlet Knight offense and reduced some of the pressure on quarterback Gary Nova. But while James has been one of the Big Ten’s top running backs through two weeks, he faces a Penn State defense allowing just 1.7 yards per carry. The Nittany Lions have also allowed just three touchdowns and no rusher has managed a run of more than 20 yards in 2014. Can Rutgers establish James and keep Penn State’s defense off balance? It’s not an easy assignment with the Nittany Lions’ talent in the front seven, headlined by linebacker Mike Hull and junior tackle Anthony Zettel.

Final Analysis

Momentum is on Rutgers’ sideline. The Scarlet Knights are at home, playing their first Big Ten game, and there’s motivation to knock off Penn State to establish some momentum in recruiting as a program against one of its Northeast rivals. Rutgers’ defensive line will give the Nittany Lions problems early, but Hackenberg is the difference in the game. Expect a close one, with Penn State pulling out a three-point victory in the fourth quarter.

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Prediction: Penn State 27, Rutgers 24