big ten

No. 14 Penn State vs. Rutgers: Help needed, but still much to play for

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No. 14 Penn State vs. Rutgers: Help needed, but still much to play for

No. 14  Penn State looks to snap a two-game losing streak in its homecoming game.

No. 14 Penn State (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) vs. Rutgers (4-5, 3-3 Big Ten)
Beaver Stadium, State College, Pennsylvania
Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network

Scouting Penn State
The Nittany Lions have dropped their last two, to Ohio State and Michigan State, by a total of four points. PSU continues to have problems running the ball (despite the presence of one of the nation’s finest backs, Saquon Barkley) and rushing the passer. Barkley, who has rushed for 864 yards (5.7 a pop), has managed 107 yards on 35 attempts the last two weeks. And the defense has allowed 728 yards through the air over that span, while recording exactly four sacks. Barkley does lead the Big Ten with 14 touchdowns and is second in the nation in all-purpose yards per game (195.7).

Scouting Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights have won three of their last four, including last week’s 31-24 victory over Maryland. Gus Edwards, who leads RU with 630 rushing yards, caught the go-ahead 23-yard touchdown pass from Gio Rescigno with 7:30 left. Edwards ran for 109 of the Knights’ 239 yards in the game. Despite Rutgers’ improvement, the Knights went 2-10 last year — in Chris Ash’s first year as head coach — there is obviously work to be done. They are last in the Big Ten in total offense (294.4) and passing offense (127.0), and next-to-last in rushing defense (179.6).

History
The Lions lead the all-time series, 25-2, and have won the last 10 meetings. The score last year in snowy Piscataway was 39-0.

Storyline to watch
As always, the focal point is the Lions’ line play. They are again expected to be without offensive tackle Ryan Bates and defensive end Ryan Buchholz, both of whom suffered undisclosed leg injuries two weeks ago against Ohio State.

What’s at stake
PSU can still win the Big Ten East, with help, and if nothing else can qualify for a New Year’s Day bowl.

Prediction

Penn State 35, Rutgers 7

Backup QB Tommy Stevens a do-it-all option for No. 4 Penn State

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USA Today Images

Backup QB Tommy Stevens a do-it-all option for No. 4 Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Tommy Stevens will take over as Penn State's starting quarterback eventually. Now, he's helping starter Trace McSorley any way he can. 

No. 4 Penn State's do-it-all backup has emerged as another option in a loaded offense. Stevens has run for, caught and thrown for touchdowns already and could see more opportunities as Penn State looks for more ways to incorporate its big, athletic backup heading into the Big Ten opener at Iowa on Saturday.

"It puts another weapon on the field," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "He's a big, strong, fast guy, and then obviously they have to be concerned about him throwing the ball as well. I think this package will just continue to evolve."

Stevens, who pushed McSorley for the starting job late into training camp last season, offers an intriguing option for an offense already with stars in Mike Gesicki and Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley. 

He can line up like either one or even split out like a traditional wide receiver. Stevens' knowledge of the offense gives him useful intelligence when it comes time to attack a defense from one of a handful of alignments.

Take his first career touchdown catch - which sparked Penn State's 52-0 rout of Georgia State on Saturday - as an example.

Stevens lined up as a tight end would, off the line of scrimmage and to McSorley's left. He slid right at the snap, hauled in a swing pass from McSorley and burst through Georgia State's secondary for an opening 10-yard score. 

Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead dialed up the play early in the week and surprised Stevens with it in practice.

"There weren't a whole lot of times we did it in practice where I actually caught the ball," Stevens said. "So I saw the (strong side linebacker) come off the edge and I was like, `Oh man, I'm actually going to catch the ball here.' So Trace did a good job of evading, giving me a great ball, I caught it and did my best to score."

His best is better than most backups who are usually relegated to holding clipboards and wearing headsets. 

The former Indiana high school standout entered Penn State with sub-4.7 40-yard-dash speed and his long strides coupled with his cutting ability made him a good dual-threat candidate to lead Moorhead's offense. But Stevens, a year behind the junior McSorley, was edged by McSorley's experience. So he immediately tried to find other ways to contribute.

It hasn't taken Moorhead long to work Stevens in. It began last year against the Iowa Hawkeyes, who now have to worry about Stevens even more when they meet on Saturday inside Kinnick Stadium.

Then, Stevens ran five times for 70 yards and added his first career touchdown in the 41-14 win.

Stevens enjoys the possibility that the Hawkeyes are likely preparing to see him on the field in one of many potential formations.

"Coach Moorhead has endless amounts of ideas about getting guys in space," Stevens said. "They've got to spend more time to put this kind of stuff in in practice for us." 

Moorhead doesn't have to change anything for Stevens if Penn State needs its backup to play his natural position. Franklin believes his No. 2 quarterback has a mastery of the offense on par with McSorley's.

Stevens got a chance to show off his quarterbacking skills - and a glimpse of what could be in store after McSorley exhausts his eligibility - on Saturday, too. 

After taking a hard hit on his first snap in relief of McSorley, Stevens threw a dart over the middle for a 35-yard touchdown to Saeed Blacknall. He took another big hit and watched Blacknall's catch from his backside.

Afterward, he sounded like a starting quarterback, making a point to refute the criticism he's heard of Blacknall's slow start. Instead, Stevens credited his big receiver for making the play, even though it was a perfectly thrown ball.

"Tommy shows that ability all the time," safety Marcus Allen said. "He has a second gear he can kick into. It's another dynamic and electrifying player like that on the field. We can put a lot of stress on a D because you don't know what we're going to hit you with."

Penn State ranked No. 6 in AP Preseason poll

Penn State ranked No. 6 in AP Preseason poll

Full AP Preseason Top 25

Expectations are high in and around Happy Valley this year.

Expectations are just as high outside of Happy Valley, too, for James Franklin and Penn State.

The Nittany Lions check in at No. 6 in the AP Top 25 preseason poll, which was released Monday afternoon.

Alabama is No. 1 for the second consecutive preseason. The Crimson Tide is followed by Ohio State at No. 2, Florida State at No. 3, Southern Cal at No. 4 and defending champion Clemson at No. 5.

Coming off last season's Big Ten title run and trip to the Rose Bowl, the hype train for Penn State centers around Heisman Trophy hopefuls QB Trace McSorely and RB Saquan Barkley.

McSorely, now a senior, had a superb junior campaign last season, throwing for 3614 yards, 29 touchdowns and just eight picks.

Barkley, now a junior, deserves all the Heisman chatter as he was spectacular last season with 1496 rushing yards and 18 TDs in the ground. He also recorded 402 receiving yards and four TDs through the air.

The No. 6 ranking is the Nits' highest ranking in the preseason poll since 1999, when a team earmarked by LaVarr Arrington and Courtney Brown was ranked No. 3.

Penn State is one of four Big Ten teams in the preseason Top 25. Ohio State is No. 2, Wisconsin is No. 9 and Michigan is No. 11.

The Wolverines visit Beaver Stadium on Oct. 21. The Lions then head out to Columbus a week later for a titanic matchup with the Buckeyes at the Horseshoe.

Penn State's season kicks off on Sept. 2 with a visit from Akron.