Thanks to a previously schedule matchup between Penn State and Rutgers, Big Ten season starts early this year! The first conference game is this weekend between the border "rivals." While each team is 2-0, there's a good chance that each team will face its toughest challenge yet this weekend in Piscataway, NJ.
Aaron Yorke: Okay, let's start things off. Ray, you seem pretty excited about this Paul James kid. He does have over 300 yards of offense so far and six touchdowns... against Washington State and Howard.
Can James keep up this level of performance against a Penn State defense that has stifled opposing rushers so far?
Ray Ransom:The Transitive Property of College Football is a fickle one, no? On the one hand, there's no way James can keep up this blistering pace against legit Power 5 talent, right? The hole close quicker, the tackles are harder to shed. On the other hand, James was top-5 nationally in rushing yards last season until he suffered an injury against Arkansas, so he's produced at this level before. The difference this year - and the reason why James will have sustained productivity - is that he has a vastly improved offensive line leading the way and an elite offensive coordinator calling the shots. I think we may actually see more touches and more big play from James against the team from Pennsylvania, as Rutgers will need to keep pace with a blistering aerial attack lead by this Christaldo Hackenberry kid.
Speaking of which, just as James has gotten it done on the ground, The Hack has gotten it done through the air. How are you guys feeling about the Golden Boy and do you think your offensive line can keep him upright this game against an athletic Rutgers front seven?
AY: As talented as Hackenberg is, he's also a little overrated. Over 750 passing yards in the first two games of the season is nothing to sneeze at, but the Lions haven't exactly been lighting up the scoreboard. 26 points against UCF? Okay. 21 points against Akron? Meh. The reason for this is that Hackenberg's four touchdown passes are matched by four frustrating interceptions that have kept Penn State's games close despite strong defensive efforts. The sexy 9.3 yards per attempt that Hackenberg sports so far is boosted by big plays; it doesn't represent consistent moving of the ball the way I'd prefer. The RU pass rush will prove a challenge for Penn State's young line, and I expect offensive coordinator John Donovan to get the ball out of Hackenberg's hands quickly. That said, if the running game continues to struggle, we could see more deep drops and more turnovers from the young signal caller.
Even though RU came out of Seattle with a solid road win two weeks ago, the defense was shredded by Washington State QB Connor Halliday (532 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT). What does RU change to stop Hackenberg from putting up similar figures? Or is Rutgers going to just outscore the Lions in a shootout?
RR: Honestly, as big a homer as I am, I don't think RU will be able to stop Hackenberg. I predict a huge day for him, but that's okay. The RU offense should be able to keep up. The big question for the defense is whether or not they can make the big plays. If we want to compete, we're going to need our defensive stars in Hamilton, Longa, Snyder and Turay to get tackles for a loss that get the offense out of rhythm, sacks that put the offense in bad situations, and a few big forced fumbles or interceptions that change the ultimate course of the game. There will be some games in the second half of the season where everything comes together for this defense, but this won't be one of those games. This game the defense is going to live and die by the big play.
One aspect of the game I think everyone is forgetting about is Special Teams. Obviously you folks benefited from some great Kicking in Week 1 across the pond. On the other side of the ball, Rutgers has blocked more kicks than any team in the FBS since 2009. In a game that could come down to the wire, Teams might be the phase of the game that ultimately determines the outcome. How do you see the kicking game shaking out?
AY: Kicking is an area where Penn State could hold a small advantage in this game. Sam Ficken didn't have an opportunity to kick a field goal against Akron, but like you said, his 4-for-4 performance against UCF in Ireland was key to Penn State sneaking out with a win. Punting has also been a surprisingly plus for the Lions so far. With the offense struggling in the early going last week, freshman punter Chris Gulla kept the Zips at bay with five punts for a remarkable 49 yards per punt average. I'm not as bullish on either offense as you are, so I think Gulla will end up playing a key role on Saturday as well. With RU punter Joseph Roth averaging less than 40 yards per punt and with Kyle Federico already having missed a short field goal against Howard, I see the PSU special teams as a little bit better right now. Of course, if RU blocks a kick, that all changes in an instant.
How confident are you in Federico if the game comes down to the wire? What about Gary Nova? He's off to a great start this year, but do you fear he could fall back into some bad habits as the competition gets stiffer in B1G season?
RR: Federico is a solid college kicker. He's not going to hit everything and things can get dicey from 40+ yards out. While he missed a gimme vs. Howard, he also hit a 42-yarder from the left hash that would have gone in from 50+. I'll take Federico from 40 in for the game winner any day. Any further than that and I'll promptly pass out. As for Nova, that's the big question of the season, isn't it? He's started hot each of the past two years before cooling off in conference play. Part of that is the level of competition, but there's something else going on mentally. Another thing to keep in mind: Nova has elevated his game to astronomical levels against big opponents in the past (see Arkansas and Arkansas). The key difference this year is the presence of Ralph Friedgen. Comparing the offense this year to the offense last year against comparable opponents to Howard and Wazzou - it's night and day. Nova has all the tools. He can make every throw on the field, he can work through his progressions, and he has underrated athleticism. Paired with The Fridge's new and improved system, and I think we're going to have SUPERNOVA on our hands Saturday!
Let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture. How do you feel about the RU-TTFP rivalry? We know Rutgers fans, players, and coaches are pumped. We know the local and national media believe there's something here. They can all feel the energy, the coverage, and the attention. Do you think fans and players from your side of the Delaware are starting to feel it? Or is this not "Big Time Football"?
Extra Credit: What are we calling this thing? I'm going with "The Crossing of the Delaware". Turn it into a trophy game with a statue of Washington's Crossing of the Delaware.
AY: Can the national media really feel the energy? I'm not sure that many fans outside of B1G country will be interested in this one, especially if they don't get BTN. That said, there certainly is some local interest. Penn State rarely gets to play road games so close to home, and I bet Rutgers has been eager to get a shot at the Lions ever since they arrived on the national scene in the mid-aughts. I'm excited because I live in New Jersey and know a lot of Rutgers alumni, but I'm not sure Penn Staters from the west side of PA see this as anything other than another conference game. That said, the first Big Ten game of the season is always exciting, and fans of the blue and white have been energized by the removal of the NCAA's bowl ban. I think a Big Ten game will always be "Big Time Football" as long as the Big Ten is a "Power Five" conference. The way things are going, RU may be wishing for a return to the AAC soon!
I like your trophy idea! Since Penn State joined the Big Ten well after all the cool trophies were created, so all we have right now are the Land Grant Trophy with MSU and the Governor's Victory Bell with Minnesota, who we rarely see anyway.
So how do you see this one going? I have Penn State making enough plays in the passing game to pull away with a 20-13 win.
RR: I see big plays on both sides of the ball, a back and forth game that goes down to the wire, and a 50+ yard TD run from Paul James to ice it. Pademonium hits Piscataway once more and Rutgers is in first place in the B1G East. 42-35, Rutgers with the win.