Key To Victory: The Battle In The Trenches
Coaches and sports analysts alike consistently say that the key to victory is winning the battle in the trenches between the offensive and defensive lines. Penn State’s victory over Ohio State was no different.
For the past few years, a widely accepted excuse for Penn State’s struggles has been a poor offensive line. That sure wasn’t the case on Saturday. The struggles have been well documented: in 2014, the offensive line consisted of new starters and former defensive line players, which made it a major weakness and causing then quarterback Christian Hackenberg to be sacked a record setting number of times. Last year seemed no different and many fans were frustrated that Franklin refused to start his young talent. At times this year it didn’t seem like things had changed at all either, like when Trace McSorley was sacked four times against Pitt.
Finally, that seems to be in the past for this program. The past few games the Nittany Lion offensive line has put together extremely impressive performances, and there is no doubt they considerably contributed to the upset victory on Saturday. Against Maryland, the offensive line opened up numerous holes, allowing Saquon Barkley to run for more than 200 yards. On Saturday the offensive performance wasn’t spectacular at all, but the offensive linemen did their jobs. Barkley ran for 99 yards on the night off 12 carries leading to a 8.3 yard average.
McSorley only threw for 154 yards and only completed eight passes but you can’t attribute that to the offensive line. It gave him considerable time to throw the ball and make a decision but he often made the decision to take off running because no one was open. Not only did it give McSorley sufficient time to make a decision, the line also only gave up one sack the whole night against a very good pass rush that sacked Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook four times last week.
What makes this achievement even more impressive is that the offensive line was without one of its best and most experienced linemen, Andrew Nelson. Brendon Mahon moved to right tackle to take Nelson’s spot and continued his good form. His replacement at left tackle was Paris Palmer who struggled mightily last year in his starting role. But no such struggles were apparent in the win, and he seemed to have completely turned his game around.
The second part to winning the battle in the trenches is the defensive line. The defensive line has also had its struggles recently with the team’s departures to the NFL and injuries. Against Pitt it didn’t register a single sack and was completely dominated. But just like the offensive line, it regrouped, and played its most complete game all season.
Before the game, it was very clear that stopping Ohio State’s run game would be a necessity in order to win. The defensive line did just that. Star running back Mike Weber was held to 71 yards on 21 carries for a very unimpressive 3.4 yards average and mobile quarterback J.T. Barrett was held to 26 yards on 17 attempts (in all fairness this also takes into account the yardage lost on sacks). In stopping the run, the defensive line made Barrett throw the ball which is not his strength whatsoever, and forced the Buckeye offensive line try and contain the pass rush.
Barrett was forced to throw the ball 43 times and the defensive line did not make it easy. Throughout the night, linemen Evan Schwan, Torrence Brown, Curtis Cothran, Garrett Sickels, and Kevin Givens consistently pressured Barrett when he dropped back to throw. This made him scramble for a short gain, throw a dump off pass for only a few yards, or try to hit a receiver who was clearly not open.
Most importantly however, Barrett was sacked six times — four of those were by the defensive line. Putting that in perspective, coming into Saturday’s game Barrett was only sacked five times all season. Ohio State’s offensive line is one of the best in the Big Ten, but the Nittany Lions ran through them like a knife through hot butter. Even more impressive is that Barrett was nearly sacked at least three or four other times but narrowly escaped. Garrett Sickels was a man on a mission. Having missed the first half due to an undisclosed suspension, he totalled two and a half sacks in just 30 minutes of football — nothing was going to stop him. And of course, what ended the game and completed the upset of the year was Schwan’s and Givens’ sack on 4th and 23.
We haven’t seen a performance this good from the Penn State’s big guys in a while. After Saturday there is no denying that Penn State’s offensive and defensive lines are forces to be reckoned with and will be instrumental in success later in the year.