Of­fen­sive line’s play leads to con­vinc­ing win

The Times-Tribune - - SPORTS - DON­NIE COLLINS

Prob­a­bly have led off a few col­umns this way over the years, but the truth that drips off of ev­ery word makes it worth re­peat­ing now and again. Foot­ball is a sim­ple game. It’s not al­ways easy to play, mind you, but once you’re on the field, some truths are self-ev­i­dent. Move the ball for­ward when you have it; push it back­ward when you don’t. Be stronger in the trenches; be faster on the edges. Take care of the foot­ball, for if the op­po­nent can’t get the ball, he can’t score.

Most im­por­tant of all, ev­ery­thing starts up front.

Penn State hasn’t made things look easy for most of the sea­son, and it cer­tainly didn’t make ev­ery­thing look easy Satur­day.

How­ever, there should be no mis­take about two things: the Nit­tany Li­ons’ 22-10 win over Wis­con­sin is their best of the sea­son; the of­fen­sive line is the big­gest rea­son why.

Many Penn State fans might won­der why Miles San­ders wasn’t the big­gest dif­fer­ence in my eyes. The ju­nior run­ning back, whose work­load ev­ery­one was clam­or­ing to see in­crease, made the ma­jor­ity sound like grid­iron ge­niuses by rush­ing for 159 yards on 23 car­ries. His 1-yard touch­down plunge in the sec­ond quar­ter put Penn State ahead by nine points against a team strug­gling to move the ball with its backup quar­ter­back at the helm.

Those same fans might chime in by prais­ing quar­ter­back Trace Mc­sor­ley, as well. The se­nior de­serves credit, for sure. He bat­tled through an­other in­jury to his leg by throw­ing for 160 yards and a score — work­ing mostly with raw fresh­men re­ceivers — and took care of the foot­ball in a stiff wind.

There should also be plenty of back-pats for a de­fense that sur­vived a few big runs by Wis­con­sin star Jonathan Tay­lor to sack quar­ter­back Jack Coan five times on 25 drop­backs while hold­ing the Badgers to just 269 yards.

None of that works with­out the of­fen­sive line play­ing what no-less-asource-than Mc­sor­ley said looked like their most phys­i­cal game of the year.

“They did a re­ally good job, and ob­vi­ously, that showed with the pro­duc­tion we were able to have in the run­ning game,” Mc­sor­ley said. “It wasn’t like we had big runs. We had a cou­ple of ex­plo­sive runs, but it was more us grind­ing out 9-, 10-yard runs.

“That’s what we were do­ing in the begin­ning of the year, and we were able to get back to it against a tough, phys­i­cal de­fense like Wis­con­sin.”

They were so good, in fact, San­ders vowed to take the starters out to eat this week, a rar­ity in the col­lege foot­ball world. The ul­ti­mate honor fora­line.

The Penn State of­fen­sive line has taken its lumps over the years, of­ten coming up small, es­pe­cially against good com­pe­ti­tion. Not as much this sea­son, per­haps. But when you vow to be the cat­a­lyst for the of­fense in the pre­sea­son, and the of­fense strug­gles to move the ball in the clutch against Ohio State, Michi­gan State and Michi­gan, it doesn’t ex­actly do much­to­erase­doubts.

Now, the Wis­con­sin de­fense isn’t ex­actly run­ning the Watt broth­ers out there any­more, and the Badgers were play­ing with­out mas­sive nose tackle Olive Sa­gapolu, who makes a dif­fer­ence against the run for sure. Even with him out, the best hope for Penn State up front seemed to be play­ing to a stale­mate against a rough-and-tum­ble 3-4 Badgers front.

The Nit­tany Li­ons didn’t just play to a stale­mate. They dom­i­nated.

The rea­son can be traced to a mid­week de­ci­sion made by of­fen­sive line coach Matt Limegrover and head coach James Franklin.

They switched their start­ing tack­les to the op­po­site side. Left tackle Ryan Bates moved to right tackle. Right tackle Will Fries moved to the left side. It’s not a com­pletely for­eign, of course. They started in those po­si­tions in the Fi­esta Bowl in De­cem­ber against Washington and paved the way for Saquon Barkley and the rest of the Li­ons to rush for 203 yards against the na­tion’s No. 1 rush de­fense at the time.

“I think it just al­lowed ev­ery­one to play very com­fort­able where they were,” cen­ter Michal Menet said.

Makes sense. Fries earned plenty of fans last year for his play at left tackle to­ward sea­son’s end, but with Bates — who opened last sea­son as the left tackle be­fore suf­fer­ing an in­jury that cost him sev­eral games — re­turn­ing at left tackle, Limegrover moved Fries to the right side. The re­sults for him there this sea­son had been in­con­sis­tent at best.

Mov­ing him back to the left side suited his style bet­ter, and the more ver­sa­tile Bates fit right in on the right side, team­ing with right guard Con­nor Mcgovern to open up enough holes to make the run over the right side a money play all day.

As Mc­sor­ley said, the run­ning game looked more like a slow burn than a fire­works dis­play, but it’s what this team needed.

The Nit­tany Li­ons dom­i­nated time of pos­ses­sion by hold­ing the ball for more than 33 min­utes against a team that makes an art of own­ing time of pos­ses­sion. The Nit­tany Li­ons’ 23 first downs were their most since Sept. 21 against Illi­nois.

Also, if you’re won­der­ing why the de­fense looked so ex­plo­sive late in the game, con­sider this: The 57 plays Wis­con­sin ran were the fewest any team ran against Penn State this sea­son, by a dozen plays.

“It was def­i­nitely a turn­around,” red­shirt fresh­man safety Jonathan Suther­land said. “Our of­fense did a great job of get­ting first downs on third downs, and it def­i­nitely kept us off the field and fresh . ... It’s a real big dif­fer­ence, be­cause not only are we get­ting rest, we get qual­ity time to talk about what looks they’ve been giv­ing us. It’s more time to talk about schemes and things like that.”

While the sea­son might not be work­ing out as promised, “the year of the of­fen­sive line” at Penn State, Satur­day cer­tainly was the day of the of­fen­sive line.

A few more games like that could change some opin­ions.

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