Blue White Illustrated

Rutgers Pregame

Penn State Sports Magazine

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70 attempts without a pick. It was the longest streak in the Big Ten until Wolver- ines cornerback Ambry Thomas broke it. Given the number of interceptions Rutgers has thrown this year – they have five more than the Big Ten's second-most-intercep- tion-prone team, Northwestern – that's a tangible sign of progress. Also, the Scarlet Knights have surrendered only 12 sacks all season, the Big Ten's second-lowest total. So when third-year coach Chris Ash ex- tols the improvements his team has made the past few weeks, he's not merely hoping to set a self-fulfilling prophesy in motion. It may already be in motion, the result of a new offensive approach by coordinator John McNulty aimed at streamlining the team's offensive system for the benefit of an inexperienced starting quarterback. "Coach McNulty and the offensive staff [have been] putting together a plan that is simpler for him to execute to try to build confidence," Ash said. "The second part of it, I think, is that the protection has been better. We haven't given up a lot of sacks here recently, and I think he's gotten some confidence because of that. I think Art himself has worked really, re- ally hard to improve. He's im- proved his mechanics, he's improved his understanding of the offense, he's improved his decision-making on game day. I think he's trying to take care of the ball better instead of forcing things like he was ear- lier in the year. "It's hard to say it's just one thing. I think it's a combination of a num- ber of things, and we needed him to do that. We need him to continue to go down that path for our offense to improve. He's worked extremely hard, and I think the of- fensive line has worked really hard to try to protect him, too." Despite all those improvements, Penn State is a 27-point favorite heading into the game. That's an impressive show of faith considering that the Nittany Lions haven't even scored 27 points in four of their past six games, but it's a reflection of the appar- ent mismatch between their rapidly im- proving defense and a Rutgers offense that has averaged a league-low 274.4 yards per game. A week ago, Penn State faced an- other opponent that had been struggling to throw the ball. Wisconsin came into Beaver Stadium with an inexperienced sophomore quarterback in Jack Coan and left with 60 passing yards and a 22-10 loss. The Nittany Lions sacked Coan five times, boosting their season total to a Big Ten-best 34. Sitkowski doesn't have a whole lot more experience than Coan. He's only been at Rutgers since January, arriving in Piscat- away as an early enrollee after spending his senior year of high school at IMG Academy in Florida. A prototypical drop-back passer at 6-foot-5, 224 pounds, he had initially committed to Miami (Fla.), then decom- mitted last November. Seeking a better fit, the Old Bridge, N.J., found himself back in his home state, where there was an oppor- tunity for immediate playing time. The Scarlet Knights needed someone to step forward at quarterback after finishing last in the Big Ten in scoring last season, and in September, Sitkowski became only the third true freshman quarterback of the postwar era to start the season opener for Rutgers. The statistical portfolio he's put together so far has been underwhelming. He's com- pleted only 49.3 percent of his passes for 1,140 yards, with a 4-to-16 touchdown- interception ratio. But Sitkowski's overall numbers have been skewed by a couple of dreadful games. In a 55-14 loss at Kansas in September, he hit only 7 of 19 passes for 47 yards, with no touchdowns and three in- terceptions. Four weeks later, he had an even worse outing in a 34-7 loss at Mary- land, completing 2 of 16 passes for 8 yards, with no touchdowns and four picks. Ash 2 A sophomore from Warminster, Pa., Blackshear is leading the Scar- let Knights in both rushing (478 yards) and receiving (332 yards). Photo by Patrick Barron/ MGoBlog N O V E M B E R   1 4 ,   2 0 1 8 B L U E W H I T E O N L I N E . C O M

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