PISCATAWAY — Saturday night started with something the Rutgers football team hadn’t seen a lot of in its first season under head coach Chris Ash — a lucky bounce.
Electing to kick-off their final home game of the season after winning the toss, the Scarlet Knights recovered a muffed kick reception from No. 8 Penn State’s Miles Sanders inside the redzone. The stage was set for Rutgers to kickstart its chance at a historic upset by taking all the momentum of the contest with a quick score.
But with 19 yards separating them from taking the initial lead in a game for the first time all season, the Knights’ offense managed to play itself out of the redzone, losing 7 yards on a jet sweep to junior running back Josh Hicks on their first play from scrimmage. Unable to gain the lost yardage back, Rutgers was forced to watch junior placekicker David Bonagura miss a 45-yard field goal attempt that went wide right.
Rutgers never came anywhere near as close to scoring for the remainder of the night on offense, and though the defense held its own for much of the first half, the wall eventually cracked and the points flooded in as the No. 8 Nittany Lions handed the Knights their second-straight shutout loss in a 39-0 beatdown on Senior night.
“Disappointing that Senior Night didn't end on a positive. Didn't give them an opportunity to leave their legacy in this football program and this University the way that we wanted,” Ash said. “My heart goes out to them right now because we really wanted to finish on a positive note for them.”
While Rutgers’ offense played at the same level all night, gaining just 87 total yards and punting so much that junior Michael Cintron broke the Big Ten single-season record with his 8th of the night and 87th of the year, its defense began the night seemingly headed for its best display of the season.
The 16th ranked redzone defense in the country showed why it ranked top in the category nationally for a pair of weeks at the start of the season, holding Penn State to 9 points in four consecutive trips to the Knights’ final 20 yards.
But with each stop came just a few minutes of rest — Rutgers sustained just one drive longer than 2 and a half minutes all night — and with the fatigue came more mistakes.
Suddenly the 4-yard gains from Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley became 18 and the field goals turned to touchdowns. The crowd announced at 51,366 had been reduced a few thousand, most of which were happy Penn State fans indifferent to the rain, the hail and the snow that fell as quickly as the hopes of those who left early.
“I think we played well in the first half,” said fifth-year senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, who was 1 of 17 seniors honored in a pregame ceremony. “I think they made some major, major halftime adjustments and they hit us where it hurt in the second half.”
It took Penn State three plays to enter the endzone in its first drive of the second half, with Barkley accounting for half of the 10 yards it needed to cover after blocking and recovering a Cintron punt.
Tyler Davis hit his fourth field goal of the afternoon on the Nittany Lions' next drive, but it was Andre Robinson’s 2-yard touchdown rush that put the game out of reach as they took a 26-0 lead.
The next score was the longest of the afternoon, a 27-yard touchdown pass from Trace McSorely to Mark Allen that came midway through the final quarter, and it was the icing on the cake of a night that saw Penn State gain 549 yards of total offense.
“Combination of different things,” said fifth-year senior defensive end Julian Pinnix-Odrick, one of the Knights' four captains. “Just finishing the game and things like that. It’s emotional, it takes a toll on you throughout the game and I gotta do a better job as a leader to make sure things stay on course.”
With one game to go in the season, it would take an all-time performance from Maryland next week to sink Rutgers deeper into the hole of frustration it finds itself in.
But despite having nothing to lose and little to gain in the final 60 minutes of the 2016 season, the final week of the season is expected to be treated no differently than the 11 others that preceded it.
“I said I love them and they just gotta keep working. There’s only a week left, but shame on you if you treat it like it’s not important,” Hamilton said of his message to the locker room after the game. “Regardless of the record or whatever else, I love the game of football. I’m going to continue to work every day.”