COLLINS: For Penn State, it's about improvement, and that must start with offensive line

(Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
  • Indiana sacked Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley four times in the first half Saturday.
  • PSU running back Saquon Barkley managed just 56 yards rushing against the Hoosiers.
  • Those kind of statistics have some PSU fans more than a little concerned about the offensive line.

For a change, Penn State fans expected big things from their offensive line coming into the season.

The massive men who comprise that front line were never going to deflect that type of praise; not when they absorbed all that criticism the last few seasons. Their coaches weren’t going to preach any caution, either; not when they knew this group finally had some experience to go with its talent.

Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley (9) is chased down by Indiana's Tegray Scales (8) on Saturday. McSorley was sacked by Indiana four times in the first half -- a statistic that has some PSU fans concerned about the team's offensive line.

At some point though, expecting big things takes a backseat to seeing, well, OK things.

Really, that’s what Penn State’s offensive line has been this season. Only OK. And, at times, not quite that good.

When it mattered Saturday, they were fine. But that was in the second half, after Indiana’s defense spent the first half blitzing the bejeepers out of it, sending a nervous Nittany Nation into a fit of worry that their mighty offense was moving backward and their early 28-point edge was cut in half by halftime.

The fact that No. 4 Penn State threw for 200 yards after halftime and wound up blowing out the Hoosiers, 45-14, at Beaver Stadium is a credit to their ability to adjust.

But, Penn State’s offense is still looking to put together a complete effort, even after piling up 370 yards of offense against Indiana. It’s fair to suggest they won’t be able to do so until the offensive line can do what the coaching staff believes it is capable of doing.

“We have to be honest with ourselves,” head coach James Franklin said. “There are some things we have to clean up.”

Field goal kicking may be at the top of Penn State’s list after Saturday, but the offensive line’s inconsistency has to be a close No. 2.

McSorley takes beating, Barkley suffocated: Think about it this way: Quarterback Trace McSorley is one of the more accomplished, savvy signal-callers in the nation, a guy who can run a bit and has proven slippery against the rush. He was still sacked four times in the first half.

Running back Saquon Barkley, who is the best player in college football this season, could barely breathe against an Indiana defense that swarmed him to a mere 56 rushing yards.

“There’s always room for improvement, and there were hiccups here and there today,” left tackle Ryan Bates said. “We ran some runs into different blitzes and different fronts that didn’t work out great. We can get better, obviously.”

The Penn State run-pass option offense is meant to make teams pick their poison in defending it. But, when the rush is that good and that consistent, and the offensive line can’t keep defenders consistently off of either McSorley or Barkley for extended stretches, that’s a big problem.

“Obviously, everybody’s game plan is to stop Saquon Barkley and the run game,” Franklin pointed out. “We have to get better in that area.

“For where we want to go and what we want to do, we’ve got to get better. A lot of it is just fundamentals and finishing blocks.”

Nitpicked: Developing programs get criticized. Strong ones get nitpicked. Penn State is going to get nitpicked this week mostly because it has not been good enough, consistently enough, in the trenches.

It lost battles up front consistently last week against Iowa, and the response was that Iowa is a big, physical team up front. But, Ohio State and Michigan are bigger, and even more physical.

Franklin and line coach Matt Limegrover said earlier this year that the group needs to be more physical, needs to have a finisher’s attitude. A killer instinct, is how Limegrover put it. But, it’s very clear that through five games, that hasn’t developed yet.

“As offensive linemen, we have to lock on our blocks, roll our hips, run our feet. That’s the biggest part of it,” Bates said. “We can’t lean. We have to bring the feet and the hips. And a lot of times, they brought people we couldn’t account for. Most of the time, that was the case, and it’s hard like that.”

Were expectations too high? Here’s another fair question: Were expectations for this group too overwhelmingly high?

As big as they are, and as highly regarded, this is still a young group. Outside of right guard Brendan Mahon, Penn State is starting three sophomores — Bates, left guard Steven Gonzalez and center Connor McGovern — and a redshirt freshman right tackle, Will Fries. When lines have trouble picking up blitzes, it’s typically because the communication isn’t where it needs to be. Communication can be an issue for a young group, especially one with three starters just getting their feet wet at new positions, and in fairness, they have been able to adjust in games.

“Some of (Indiana’s) line movements were getting us early,” McSorley said. “But I could hear our offensive line talking, ‘Hey, they’re giving us a lot of twists. Gotta be ready to pass them off.’ I thought our line did a great job in the second half picking that up.”

There’s a big difference between being good enough for stretches in a game and big-time. There’s a bigger difference between being good enough to compete for the Big Ten title and good enough to compete in the College Football Playoff, which is where Penn State and Franklin want to go.

Big question mark: It won’t get there if Penn State isn’t much better up front by the end of October than it was at September’s end.

This is a team with a big question mark and more than enough potential to formulate an answer, sure.

But a big question mark.

Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.