Penn State looking to keep young playmakers busy against Rutgers
STATE COLLEGE — Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg has watched enough film. He knows Rutgers' young defense is beatable.
Hackenberg believes his offense — two weeks after allowing 10 sacks in the loss to Temple — could break out when the Scarlet Knights (1-1) travel to Beaver Stadium on Saturday. The Nittany Lions (1-1) second-half dominance against Buffalo last week has given hope to the frequently beleaguered quarterback.
"I think we started really well the first game," Hackenberg said. "We started fast. We didn't finish as strong. The second game we didn't start as fast but we finished strong. Just being able to put those two aspects together for a complete game is going to be good."
Rutgers allowed 559 yards in its loss to Washington State and will likely start six underclassmen defenders. Penn State isn't loaded with experience on the offensive side either, but the Nittany Lions looked dangerous and unpredictable while getting the ball to playmakers in space and taking deep shots against the Bulls.
Freshmen speedsters Brandon Polk, DeAndre Thompkins and Saquon Barkley have given offensive coordinator John Donovan options in the rushing game and a reshuffled offensive line gave Hackenberg plenty of time to find receivers down the field. Polk has carried five times for 95 yards through two weeks and Barkley looked elusive in a 12-carry, 115-yard Week 2 performance. Thompkins has sparked Penn State's punt return team and could get more offensive work.
"I think you'll see those guys' packages continue to grow in terms of vertical threats in the passing game as well," Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Franklin's own role has expanded.
His offensive staff retooled its approach after the loss to Temple, with Franklin getting more involved in play calling. He and Hackenberg chatted frequently on Saturday, with Franklin relaying plays from the sideline and debriefing his quarterback following each possession.
"We're all on the same page and kind of putting the right foot forward with what we needed to do the next drive and really taking a good approach to everything," Hackenberg said.
Rutgers will take the field without its top target. Senior receiver Leonte Carroo is suspended indefinitely. He pleaded not guilty to a domestic violence-related assault charge after authorities say he slammed a woman onto concrete after last week's football game.
"It's big," junior wideout Janarion Grant said. "He's one of the main guys, one of the main receivers and we just have to fill one of those spots and that's what we're going to have to do."
Returns galore: It's been nearly five years since a Penn State player returned a kickoff for a touchdown and seven since a Nittany Lion scored on a punt return. Rutgers return dynamo Grant did both against Washington State. He also returned a kickoff in the Scarlet Knights' season-opener.
Wtih Penn State's Thompkins and fellow freshman Nick Scott turning in 58-yard returns on punt and kickoffs, respectively, last week, the special teams battle is shaping up to be a big one.
Nelson or Palmer: Penn State sophomore offensive lineman Andrew Nelson wasn't given a good prognosis for playing Saturday after he was hurt against Buffalo. Franklin said it would be up to team doctors whether or not Nelson plays. Junior college transfer Paris Palmer will likely get the nod if Nelson can't go.
Home away from home: Separated by about 230 miles, Penn State and Rutgers have similar roster makeups and more than a handful of Scarlet Knights will be playing in their home state. The Nittany Lions have 18 players from New Jersey while Rutgers has 17 Pennsylvania products on its roster. There are a total of 137 players from both states.
No Flood: Franklin won't get to interact before or after the game with his friend Kyle Flood. The Rutgers coach was suspended Wednesday for three games and fined $50,000 for contacting a faculty member about a player's grade. It's the latest development in a rough month for the program with Carroo suspended, six others dismissed and several current and former players arrested.
Running backs coach Norries Wilson will assume Flood's duties.