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By Tom Luicci
PISCATAWAY, N.J. (Sept. 13, 2014) – 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 Lewiswere 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, limiting the Nittany Lions to a pair of Sam Ficken field goals in the second half until that 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.