PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Another dominant performance by the Penn State defense catapulted the Nittany Lions as they defeated Rutgers 20-7 at HighPoint.com Stadium Saturday afternoon.
“It was about stopping Isaih Pacheco and Raheem Blackshear, we have been good defending teams that are one-dimensional, I think our defense is playing well. Our defensive line is playing at a high level.” head coach James Franklin said following the game.
The defensive line for the Nittany Lions is appropriately deemed the Wild Dogs, a name bestowed upon them by position coach Sean Spencer. Those Wild Dogs and their ‘dog’ mentality have played an integral role in not only the dominance of the defensive line of late but for the defense as a whole.
“Every single person on the defensive line is a dog,” defensive tackle Robert Windsor said. “I have the utmost confidence in every one next to me and myself. We feed off each other’s energy.”
That energy helped Penn State record four sacks and 11 tackles-for-loss against a Rutgers team that mustered only 234 total yards of offense.
“The pass rush was great today, I think,” defensive end Shareef Miller said. “They had some situations where they started chipping us a lot, tight ends and stuff to try to slow the pass rush, but we managed to get some sacks on them.”
The key to the success of the Wild Dogs recently? Doing their jobs and staying within their responsibilities and it’s helped those behind them as well as the many who make up the Wild Dogs.
Take Kevin Givens for example. His stats are underwhelming at 25 total tackles and only one sack, but it’s off the stat sheet where he’s made the most impact. Simply doing his job as a decoy and garnering the respect of the opponent has led to the successes of the others on the defensive line, something not lost on Franklin.
“A lot of the things he’s doing is allowing our linebackers to make the plays that they’re making, it’s allowing Windsor to get into some one-on-one situations. It’s allowing our defensive ends to get some one-on-one situations,” Franklin said. “I think he warrants a lot of respect from what people see on tape and I think the other thing is just doing a great job of being disciplined and holding his gap which isn’t always flashy but it’s critical to our success on the defensive side of the ball.”
The Wild Dogs have steadily improved with each passing week and are firing on all cylinders with the rest of the defense not far behind. With only one regular season game remaining, that growth should continue against a Maryland team coming off a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of Ohio State Saturday afternoon.
“We just get better every week,” Windsor said. “I know, personally, I’ve gotten so much better technique wise since week-one just understanding blocks and all that just from getting game reps.”
THE GAME BALLS
My top three performers:
1. Pat Freiermuth
Penn State tight end
Freiermuth hauled in three passes for 47 yards and two touchdowns.
2. Micah Parsons
Penn State linebacker
Parsons recorded seven total tackles, five of which were solo, two tackles-for-loss and a sack in his first start as a Nittany Lions.
3. Raheem Blackshear
Rutgers running back
Blackshear scored the lone touchdown of the afternoon for Rutgers and ran for 102 yards.
With Mike Gesicki off to the NFL it was uncertain the type of production Penn State would get from the tight end position this season as those on the roster were unproven and the rest were incoming freshmen.
In has stepped freshman Pat Freiermuth who’s developed into not only a threat downfield, but also one of Trace McSorley’s top targets this season. Freiermuth currently leads the team in receiving touchdowns and is one of six Penn State receivers who have appeared in all 11 games thus far.
Freiermuth provides McSorley with sure hands, excellent body control and is a match-up nightmare with a 6-foot-5 frame.
“He is big. He is strong. He is physical,” Franklin said. “He’s got great body control. He can contort his body in different positions and come down with the ball. He’s done some really nice things all season long.”
His growth at the tight end position in both the run and pass game has both added to his development as a top-target but also to his confidence. And as a freshman, that confidence is integral to the initial success of Freiermuth.
“He’s got a lot of confidence not only in what he does in the run game but what he does in the pass game,” Franklin said. “He’s also a quick learner. he’s able to pick things up with confidence and play fast.”
As Freiermuth’s role continues to grow and he physically matures, the sky becomes the limit as far as his future is concerned and that’s coming from his quarterback.
“Pat’s got a bright future. He works hard every single day. He had two touchdowns today and you couldn’t have told him that it was a great day that he had two touchdowns,” McSorley said. “He’s got a really good mentality. He’s a young guy, but he’s like 20 years old so he’s like the oldest young guy ever.”
The Penn State offense has failed mightily to find a rhythm recently and Saturday was no different against a 1-9 Rutgers team. McSorley looked out of sorts and limped to a 17-for-37 good for completion percentage of 45.9 percent.
It has not been an easy going for the Nittany Lions offense who in the first half of the season were putting up points in droves. Since scoring 63 points against Illinois in week four, Penn State has broken the 30 point threshold only twice against Indiana and Iowa respectively.
“I thought the running game, we did some good things, I think we are still a little off in the passing game, we have to get that cleaned up,” Franklin said.
“Miles Sanders battled to get the yards he could get, Trace was able to do some things as well, we were just a little bit off, but that defense, we have seen it on tape, they played everybody tough. We have to get better in the passing game, the better we get at that, it will open up some holes for the running game.”
With a boom or bust offense based on the big plays, the Nittany Lions have struggled in the splash play department with an injured McSorley at the helm. His right knee continues to limit his ability to throw the ball down field and there’s a noticeable difference in his arm strength as a result.
“It’s something that’s kind of hampered us all season long, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Franklin said.
With one game remaining, it’s important Penn State leaves the Maryland game as healthy as possible and with as much momentum as possible offensively entering the bowl break.
Faced with a 4th-and-goal from the two yard line and desperately needing some semblance of points to put on the scoreboard., Rutgers dialed up a trick play used by the Philadelphia Eagles. The play was designed perfectly and failed in only one area, backup quarterback Giovanni Resigno being able to haul in the catch.
Rutgers tried a Jersey Special, and it did not work. https://t.co/4KTb1UB66t
— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) November 17, 2018
With a banged up McSorley and an offense struggling, the Nittany Lions decided to stay short and get their tight end involved in the game.
And it worked. McSorley faked the run to Sanders and it gave freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth just enough time to get behind his man. The redshirt senior quarterback found Freiermuth for the six yard touchdown reception, giving Penn State a 10 point cushion in the second quarter.
The decision to stay short and help out McSorley paid dividends on that drive as it allowed the receivers to use route patterns designed to get separation that weren’t too far down the field.
THE OTHER SIDE
The Rutgers offense was purely abysmal from the opening kickoff as starting quarterback Artur Sitkowski went 3-for-7 for 18 yards and threw two horrid interceptions.
Through the first half, the Scarlet Knights had mustered only 63 total yards of offense and crossed midfield only one time and it resulted in a turnover on downs.
The second half faired better under backup quarterback Giovanni Rescigno who benefitted by feeding the ball to Raheem Blackshear. Blackshear finished the game with 102 yards on the ground and the lone Rutgers touchdown on the afternoon.
It’s been a rough year for the Scarlet Knights and Saturday proved as such with their performance offensively.
THE INJURY UPDATE
• Juwan Johnson, wide receiver, was listed on the travel roster, but did not dress for the fourth consecutive game.
• Connor McGovern, right guard, left the game in the second half with what looked to be a shoulder injury.
No. 14 Penn State returns home to Beaver Stadium to take on Maryland next Saturday at 3:30 p.m. for the last regular season game of the season.
Visit our Penn State team page for everything from this game.