Penn State's offensive line beginning to surge

(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
  • Junior tackle Brendan Mahon is becoming a stalwart on the Penn State offensive line.
  • The Lions' offensive line paved the way for Saquon Barkley to rush for 207 yards on Saturday.
  • Penn State will now take on Iowa Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.

INDIANAPOLIS — If it seemed like just about all of Penn State’s big runs on Saturday came on the right side, that’s because it’s true.

On a day Barkley rushed for a career-best 207 yards, 195 of those came outside of right tackle, according to analysis by Pro Football Focus.

Brendan Mahon

Barkley had 11 carries where he hit the corner to the right against Purdue, averaging 17.7 yards on those runs, bolstered greatly by his highlight-reel 81-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Sealing that edge each time was Brendan Mahon.

In just his second start at right tackle this season, Mahon continued to show impressive progress in his junior season, helping stabilize a unit that lost veteran Andrew Nelson to a season-ending knee injury.

“He’s doing a really nice job,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “We’re pleased with him. He’s kind of the model. He’s got the length to play tackle. He’s got the physicality to play guard. Creates a lot of flexibility.

“He’s taken that position and really run with it right now. Early in the season he had some growing pains, and he’s learned from it. I’m really proud of it.”

Those growing pains would be two plays in particular from the beginning of the season when he was making his first two career starts at left tackle — before Nelson’s injury forced him to switch sides.

Nelson was beaten cleanly for sacks by future NFL defensive ends for Kent State and Pitt. Both caused fumbles, with one being returned for a touchdown and the other leading to a touchdown.

No such issues lately, however. Mahon was twice recognized as the top-performing tackle in the country, including a week ago in the Nittany Lions’ upset of Ohio State.

Franklin was a little skeptical of those honors last week — “I don’t know how other people can grade specific players when they don’t truly know what the call was and what their assignments were,” Franklin said — but he stressed that it doesn’t diminish Mahon’s contributions to the offense.

Gaia, Palmer improving: After the win over the Boilermakers, Franklin also wanted to highlight improvements he saw in new left tackle Paris Palmer and senior Brian Gaia, who has been better overall at center than his past two seasons at guard.

Gaia has had to help along two rookies who flank him at guard — redshirt freshman Ryan Bates and true freshman Connor McGovern.

Penn State does not typically make first-year players available for interviews, but the team did post a brief video of McGovern, where he talked about Gaia’s influence after the win.

“He’s always giving the calls, always keeping us pumped up on the sideline and everything,” the Lake-Lehman grad said. “We’re always talking, communicating. We were able to pick up the (defensive line) stunts and we were making plays.”

Helped along by four Purdue turnovers, the Lions offense exploded in the second half, ripping off 45 points in the final 30 minutes.

Penn State’s 62 points were the most ever scored by an opponent at Ross-Ade Stadium.

“It started off and they were blitzing a lot more than we were expecting in practice,” McGovern said. “We came to the sideline and at halftime got adjusted to that, and came out in the second half and just took care of everything.”

Up the ladder: A week ago, Penn State earned its first national ranking since 2011, moving into the top 25 in the AP poll. This Sunday, the Lions cracked the coaches poll as well.

The Lions debuted at No. 23 in the coaches poll and moved up four spots in the AP poll to No. 20.

This season’s first playoff selection committee poll will be released on Tuesday evening.

Up next: It’s already time for another game under the lights at Beaver Stadium. And on his way back to Happy Valley from Indiana on Saturday, Franklin figured, what the heck, let’s have another White Out.

Typically a once-a-year event, Penn State is looking to bring it back again for Saturday night’s game against Iowa. Kickoff will be 7:30 p.m. with Big Ten Network carrying the broadcast.

The Hawkeyes enter the game at 5-3 and 3-2 in league play and are coming off a bye week that followed a 17-9 home loss to Wisconsin.

Things haven’t gone nearly as smoothly as last season for the Hawkeyes, who had their first 12-0 regular season in school history. Since then, Iowa has gone 5-5, losing the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl before falling to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State in September.