PSU not physical enough vs. Michigan
STATE COLLEGE — Early in the fourth quarter, Penn State aligned more than 2,300 pounds of blocking before Saquon Barkley, hoping they could plow a path to the end zone. Michigan countered with eight defenders at the 3-yard line, expecting to make another stop.
Which it did. Despite seven offensive linemen and two tight ends in front of him, Barkley was stopped for a 3-yard loss on second-and-goal. Two plays later, following an incomplete pass, Penn State meekly kicked a field goal, handing Michigan another trench victory in its 28-16 win at Beaver Stadium.
That play, coupled with eight others in the red zone, underscored Penn State's day — and past two seasons, really. The Lions ran nine red-zone plays against Michigan, gaining a total of 4 yards. Two of the running plays lost yards, one was stopped at the 1-yard line by a great defensive effort and four ended with incomplete passes.
With its offensive-line struggles extending now through 24 games of James Franklin's head-coaching tenure, the Lions remain hamstrung by their inability to block for yards when they need them most. Little wonder, then, that Franklin decided later in the fourth quarter (following another three-and-out red-zone series) to kick another field goal rather than try a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
"At that point, we had a hard time in the red-zone punching it in, so we thought kicking the field goal was the best decision," Franklin said.
Offensive line presents 'challenges': For two years, Franklin has referred to his offensive line's deficiencies as continuing "challenges," born of positional inexperience and recruiting through sanctions. He's a proponent of not starting linemen until at least their redshirt sophomore years, though situations dictate otherwise.
On Saturday, Penn State juggled its line again, moving right tackle Andrew Nelson (who has played hurt all season) to the left side to replace Paris Palmer. On that second-and-goal play, the Lions had six linemen on the line and one (guard Derek Dowrey) in the backfield.
Little worked. Despite his massive set of blockers, Barkley still was forced to bounce his run outside. He finished the game with 68 yards rushing on 15 carries. Two of those went for 71 yards, including a promising 56-yarder on Penn State's first series. Michigan held Barkley to minus-3 yards on his other 12 attempts.
"They beat us up front, I guess," Penn State tight end Brent Wilkerson said. "We weren't physical enough, and we didn't give it to them."
Michigan's physical defense overwhelmed Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg as well, sacking him four times and hitting him countless more. In the second half, Hackenberg succumbed to the 100th sack of his career.
"You could tell toward the end he was flinching at the end of his throws, ducking to try and get out of the way," Michigan defensive end Chris Wormley said. "That was the goal all along."
Wolverines made mistakes, too: For Penn State, things could have been worse, if not for two Michigan turnovers and an endless series of penalties. Michigan was flagged a season-high 13 times for 117 yards, giving Penn State six of its 14 first downs.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, who took off his jacket and threw a play card to protest some calls, called the officiating "pretty lopsided." He also credited the whiteout crowd of 107,418 with forcing some of the flags.
"Whenever you win a road game, you're not just overcoming the other team, you're overcoming their fans," Harbaugh said. "That really makes you feel like a man when you do that."
Harbaugh quickly added that "nobody was manlier" than Michigan's offensive line. The Wolverines' front offered effective protection for quarterback Jake Rudock, who went 25-for-38 for 256 yards and two touchdowns.
Penn State sacked Rudock twice — with linebacker Brandon Bell forcing a fumble — but also had trouble sustaining a traditional four-man rush. Playing without injured defensive end Carl Nassib didn't help.
Nassib, the nation's sack leader, sustained an upper-body injury during the Northwestern game two weeks ago. Franklin said the fifth-year senior was limited at practice last week and "wasn't feeling great" in warmups. Nassib started the game but didn't play beyond the first series.
"You're talking about the best defensive end in the country," said safety Malik Golden, who started in place of injured senior Jordan Lucas. "His presence was missed."
PSU-Michigan State game set for ESPN: Penn State's regular-season finale at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Michigan State will air on ESPN.