One bad defensive series -- after nearly 57 minutes of stellar play by the unit -- proved to be Rutgers' undoing in its naticipated Big Ten Conference opener last night.
Penn State's Christian Hackenberg drove his team 80 yards in six plays, with Bill Belton finishing the drive with a five-yard run with 1:13 to play, as the Nittany Lions rallied for a 13-10 victory over the Scarlet Knights before a record crowd of 53,774 at High Point Solutions Stadium tonight.
Held in check most of the game, Hackenberg needed just 1:49 to drive those 80 yards after Penn State (3-0) took over at its 20 yard line trailing 10-6. A 53-yard completion to Geno Lewis followed shortly after by a 23-yard completion to Lewis were the key plays in the drive.
Rutgers (2-1) could not overcome five interceptions by quarterback Gary Nova despite the strong defensive effort.
Hackenberg finished 25-of-44 for 309 yards despite game-long pressure.
The Scarlet Knights led all evening until that Belton touchdown run with 73 seconds remaining, limiting the Nittany Lions to a pair of Sam Ficken field goals in the second half until the game-winning drive by Penn State.
It had been the return of Rutgers’ stout defensive play – and just enough fancy footwork by Nova – that turned out to be the difference in a surprisingly low-scoring first half that saw Rutgers claim a hard-fought 10-0 halftime lead tonight.
Though Nova struggled with his passing early on (he was 8-of-15 for 125 yards with two interceptions in the first half), his new-found mobility proved to be a fitting reward for a defense that deserved some help from the offense.
Facing a third and two from the Nittany Lions 14 yard line, Nova took off on a scramble, using a spin move at the 3 yard line to avoid safety Malik Golden before diving into the end zone for a touchdown – the second rushing score of his career.
That gave Rutgers a 7-0 lead with 11:32 left in the second quarter, and provided some relief for a defense that kept Hackenberg and Penn State’s offense in check despite several tests.
An assist by the special teams was critical to Rutgers’ ability to take an early lead, with Leonte Carroo blocking a punt (in addition to catching three passes for 52 yards in the first half) and Kemoko Turay blocking a 34-yard field goal try by the Nittany Lions to keep the game scoreless.
Roughed up in the second half against Howard last week (259 yards allowed after halftime), and victimized for a school-record 532 passing yards by Washington State in the opener, Rutgers’ defense returned to its dominant ways.
Penn State managed just 102 yards of total offense in the first half, with the Nittany Lions limited to 23 rushing yards.
Hackenberg, victimized by several drops, finished the first half 9-of-17 for 79 yards.
Nova’s two first quarter interceptions, though, had Rutgers’ defense on its heels. But the unit responded every time it needed to in the first half.
The offense, meanwhile, did just enough to make that defensive effort pay dividends. In addition to Nova’s touchdown run, which capped a 10-play, 80-yard drive, Rutgers did just enough on its final drive to get a double-digit halftime lead.
Pinned at their own seven yard line with 5:05 left before halftime, Rutgers moved deep enough and far enough to get 32-yard field goal from Kyle Federico just 12 seconds before the break.
Rutgers’ running game had some early success, most of it by Desmon Peoples, finishing with 74 yards on 19 carries through the first two quarters. The Scarlet Knights had 199 yards of total offense then.
The attendance of 53,774 was the highest in stadium history and was the 11th crowd of more than 50,000. Nine of the top 18 crowds in stadium history have happened in the 15 home games since the start of the 2012 season. Tonight marked the fourth sellout at the expanded stadium.
The previous stadium attendance record was 53,737 versus Cincinnati (9/7/09).
Rutgers blocked two kicks on the night – a field goal by Kemoko Turay and a punt by Leonte Carroo. It was the second consecutive game for RU with two blocks. The last time that happened was in 2010 in the games against Norfolk State and FIU.
o The Scarlet Knights have now blocked 39 kicks since 2009, the most in the nation.
The defense collected five sacks for the second time in three games to start the season. In 13 games last season, RU had two games with at least two sacks.
Rutgers held Penn State scoreless in the first half – it was the first time since the 2012 Russell Athletic Bowl the defense went to break allowing zero points.
Rutgers and Penn State combined to play a scoreless first quarter. The last time an RU game featured no points in the opening quarter was in 2012 at Pittsburgh.
Rutgers finished its second consecutive game with at least five sacks. It marked the first time since the final three games of the 2008 season that Rutgers totaled five or more sacks in multiple games.
Rutgers limited Penn State to 64 net yards rushing on 33 attempts (1.9 yards per carry).
QB Gary Nova
Nova scored his second career rushing touchdown in the second quarter from 14 yards out. His other rushing score came last season on a bootleg play at SMU.
WR Leonte Carroo
Carroo recorded six catches in the game for the second time this season. His career-best was seven last season versus Temple.
LB Steve Longa
Longa tied for the Rutgers lead with nine tackles in the game. He has tied or led the team in tackles in 12 of his 16 career games.
K Kyle Federico
Federico converted a 32-yard field goal in the second quarter. He has now 22 career successful field goals, good for 10th in school history.
DL Kemoko Turay
Turay picked up his second field goal block in as many weeks.
LB Kevin Snyder
Snyder finished with a career-high 1.5 sacks. His previous career-high was one sack.