I 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. 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.
Sanders, McSorley, defense deserve credit, too: Many Penn State fans might ask why isn’t Miles Sanders 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.
O-line gets physical: None of that works without the offensive line playing what no-less-a-source-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. It's the ultimate honor for a line.
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 much to erase doubts.
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.
Switch paid dividends: 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.
Lions dominated time of possession: 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.
Donnie Collins is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.