Penn State youngsters Barkley, Godwin add spark to surging offense
STATE COLLEGE — Penn State left guard Angelo Mangiro saw the potential of his young offensive in training camp.
Freshman running back Saquon Barkley and sophomore wide receiver Chris Godwin, along with veteran Mangiro, have sparked a unit that's found consistency in three of the last four weeks.
That's just in time for the Nittany Lions' most difficult stretch. Penn State (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) will play at Northwestern (6-2, 2-2) on Saturday before finishing with No. 16 Michigan and No. 6 Michigan State.
"We're going to have to be balanced," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "Be able to run the ball. Be able to mix in the high-percentage throws and then find situations where we're able to take some shots and create some explosive plays."
Barkley and Godwin have made them all season. Penn State's 29 plays of 30 yards or more are best in the Big Ten and eighth nationally. Recently, players who shouldered heavy loads in 2014 have helped the offense. An all-or-nothing attack has blossomed into a methodical and dangerous group, striking with a big play or chipping away at a defense.
"I think that communication has grown and has helped our offense progress," Mangiro said.
Mangiro's ability to slot into any of the interior line spots has helped, along with the reemergence of two of quarterback Christian Hackenberg's favorite targets from last season.
Six games into this season, DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis were on pace to catch just 54 passes for 618 yards after they combined for 137 grabs for 1,650 yards last season. But both have found the end zone in the last two games and have accounted for 40 percent of their combined yardage in the last three.
Mangiro, center Wendy Laurent and right guard Brian Gaia gave Hackenberg a comfortable pocket in a 39-0 win over Illinois, helping produce his best game since 2013. His confidence in his receiving corps got a boost as Hamilton and Lewis have made big plays to augment Godwin's downfield production. They've also forced defenders out of the box who were once stacked there to blitz Hackenberg.
"You can't always control how many catches you're going to get as a wide receiver," Franklin said. "But what you can do is the opportunities you get, you make the most of them."
Hamilton has found more ways to get open from the slot and Lewis, whose playing time has been sporadic, has come up big with limited snaps. Although Godwin and Saeed Blacknall are reliable deep threats, Penn State has missed Lewis' physicality and ability to win the 50/50 passes in the red zone.
That changed when Lewis scored crucial touchdowns against Maryland and Illinois by plucking balls out of the air at their highest point. His leaping, fade-away grab over Maryland's Sean Davis held up as the game-winner, and he out-jumped Illinois' Patrick Nelson in a rout of the Fighting Illini.
"It's like going up and getting a rebound," Lewis said. "You just time the jump right."
While Mangiro had to wait longer than expected, he's pleased Penn State's offense is finally clicking.