C.J. Thorpe fell to his knees, arched backward and looked to the heavens, in a combination of thankfulness, surprise and pure glee.
Freshman linebacker Brandon Smith had just run through Idaho running back Kiahn Martinez along the Penn State sideline. Martinez was driven from the Nittany Lions’ 39-yard line violently to the 40. Might be the hit of the year even for this hard-hitting Nittany Lions defense, when it’s all said and done.
But for as much attention as the hit drew, Thorpe’s reaction caught as many eyes.
“Honestly, it was one of those plays in the game where I didn’t see Brandon coming at all, because the (yard marker) was right in front of me,” Thorpe said. “When I say he came out of nowhere, to me, that was literal. The hit really surprised me, and it was so loud and right there in front of my face. It was one of those things where I reacted in a special way.”
For the first time in several years, there were few questions asked about the Penn State offensive line heading into the season, and Thorpe is one of the prime reasons why.
Bringing "nastiness:" In the opener against Idaho, Thorpe and the line paved the way for 331 rushing yards and five touchdowns, and didn’t allow a sack in the 79-7 win. More than anything afterward, the Nittany Lions pointed not to the statistics but the attitude of the front five, which returned three starters but needed a bit of the every-down intensity Thorpe has instituted since becoming a starter in camp.
“He brings an edge,” head coach James Franklin said. “You saw a few glimpses of that on Saturday. Extremely physical in the running game, plays with a nastiness, with an attitude that we need.”
Looking for finishers: For the last few years, offensive line coach Matt Limegrover has pined for finishers, linemen who block to the hollow of the whistle. In short, guys who you wouldn’t want to mess with on a football field.
When the coaching staff recruited him as part of the 2017 class, they eyed the 6-foot-3, 322-pound Thorpe for his intimidating attitude as much as his size. The four-star recruit’s game film overflowed with plays where he pushed defensive linemen downfield, pancaking them to the turf as the ballcarrier was tackled away from the ball or closer to the line of scrimmage.
“I’ve played with that (intensity) all the way through high school,” Thorpe said. “It’s kind of ingrained in me, part of my competitive nature. I don’t really feel like I’m doing a good job unless I’m imposing my will on someone else.”
Spending time on defense: Thorpe spent the last two seasons learning behind former Lake-Lehman product Connor McGovern, now of the Dallas Cowboys, and actually spent most of 2018 filling in on the depth-poor defensive line.
That experience set him up for success this season. He said he learned the intricacies of playing the defensive line — the timing, the strategies, the goals — and that knowing those helped him counter what defensive linemen might try to do against him in the future.
But once he returned to the offensive line, he began to notice a shift in attitude among his teammates. More confidence. More of a willingness to be aggressive, to set a tone by pushing the opponent around.
“I would think everyone is a lot more confident with where they’re at,” Thorpe said. “Having a couple guys with that mentality has helped those guys who, if they had it before but some other guys didn’t and weren’t letting them express it, they’re able to express that side of themselves where, ‘I want to bully some guys.’ That kind of aggressiveness can really show up now.”