Entering this season, the situation surrounding the Big Ten East was as clear cut as it could possibly be — Michigan, Ohio State vying for the top spot and every other team picking up the crumbs far below them.
But in a sport as unpredictable and chaotic as college football, it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the team’s projected to be at the mid-tier of the division emerged as a contender for the title and a spot in the Big Ten Championship game.
The shock comes in that team not being Michigan State, a team a year removed from a Big Ten conference title and a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff, but Penn State, a program seemingly at a standstill in the third year of head coach James Franklin’s tenure.
The Nittany Lions started the same way the Rutgers football team, their next opponent did, splitting the first four games of the season, including their first Big Ten games of the year.
The results of those first conference games were promising for the Scarlet Knights and worrying for Penn State, with Rutgers nearly upsetting defending Big Ten West division champions Iowa at home and the Nittany Lions getting blown out at the Big House by the Wolverines, but the roles reversed as the conference schedule played out.
As the Knights went on to lose every other Big Ten game it played, falling to the Spartans, the Buckeyes and the Wolverines by a combined score of 185-0, Penn State has run the table in its last seven conference games, shooting itself up the playoff committee’s rankings to No. 8.
With two weeks remaining in the season, the Nittany Lion’s path to improbably winning the East is simple — win their final two games and hope Michigan loses one of its last two contests.
That’s where the Knights come in.
Hosting a program that’s rapidly become the most bitter Big Ten rival among its fanbase, Rutgers has little more than pride to play for. Without a bowl game to look forward to at the end of the season, it’ll have to work with the next best thing.
“I think any time you get to go out and play a game of the significance of a ranked opponent, I think that’s all you really you need to have at stake,” said senior defensive tackle Darius Hamilton, 1 of 17 seniors to be honored in a pregame Senior Night ceremony. “Obviously the season’s not going the way we want, at a certain point, it’s going to be up to us to change it. So that’s something we’re looking forward to going out there and being able to do.”
While most in Happy Valley, including Franklin, hesitate to call the matchup a rivalry game, there’s no doubt that those east of the Delaware River see it as one. When Penn State came to Piscataway in 2014 for Rutgers’ first-ever Big Ten conference game, it was the fans who made headlines.
There were t-shirts at tailgates with “Ped State” on them, referencing the infamous Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal involving the former defensive coordinator and hall of fame head coach Joe Paterno, who allegedly knew of Sandusky’s inappropriate behavior and failed to report it for decades. The night also spawned the birth of a now-infamous chant Rutgers’ fans sing on third down that forced University President Robert L. Barchi and then-athletic director Julie Hermann to apologize to the president of Penn State.
Current Athletic Director Pat Hobbs sent out a letter to the Rutgers community urging them to heed to the University’s Athletic Creed, saying supporters’ “signage, tee-shirts and language should support Rutgers football, not denigrate our opponent.”
— Rutgers Athletics (@RUAthletics) November 17, 2016
The fact Hobbs was compelled to both send out the letter and produce a video alongside various student leaders pleading for fans to be respectful shows how heated the rivalry is, and is not an ideal scenario for a team a week removed from a 49-0 loss in which head coach Chris Ash said his team was distracted by “extra-curricular activities” and bickering with the other team.
Let's go Knights! pic.twitter.com/5Iv422sXCB
— The Alley (@RutgersAlley) November 17, 2016
“That's not an issue. It was not a major issue. But it was one that was concerning to me because I hadn't seen that so far this season,” Ash said of his team losing focus against the Spartans. “But it's been addressed. It's behind us and we'll move forward and don't anticipate that being an issue that we have to discuss again.”
Beyond the buzz being generated off the field, the game presents another chance for Rutgers to get a first Big Ten win of Ash’s tenure in Piscataway on it.
Ash pinned the loss on Rutgers' inability to win the line of scrimmage on either side of the ball, an area it’ll have to dominate in on the defensive end to contain running back Saquon Barkley. The fringe Heisman candidate has been a wrecking ball in his sophomore year, leading the Big Ten in rushing with 122 yards per game to go along with his seven touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s really good. He’s an outstanding running back,” Ash said of Barkley. “He’s got quickness, great change of direction, he’s got bursts and he’s got flat out speed. He’s got it all and he’s got some power too. So really impressed by him.”
Stop Barkley and give sophomore quarterback Giovanni Rescigno, who had his worst performance since taking the starting job from junior Chris Laviano midway through the season in East Lansing, enough time to work and the Knights have a chance of pulling off an improbable upset in an otherwise dismissable season.
Expecting to be where Penn State is right now in the first year under Ash was always a lofty goal, and while the results and eye test appear to paint a different picture, everyone in the program feels it turning in the right direction.
“Through this coaching change, a lot of the guys are wishing they could be back for another two or three years because these guys, they know what they’re talking about,” said senior strong safety Anthony Cioffi, who hopes to defeat the Nittany Lions to spoil his Penn State alum sister’s birthday. “They’ve been around football a lot, they’ve been around winning programs and it’s a culture that is going to grow here and continue to grow for years coming.”