Collins: Barkley And McSorley The Focus, But The O-line Is The Difference
STATE COLLEGE Football is a very difficult game. You have to memorize a playbook as thick as War And Peace. You have to know it inside and out, as well as what the opponent is trying to do to you. To do it all right, you have to watch hours of game film and spend hours more in the weight room, and even a few hours more a week sloughing through practices. Your reward for doing so well is the chance to block 300-pound defensive linemen who are about as easy to move as loaded dumpsters, and avoid 220-pound defenders running at you on a dead sprint. In so many ways, though, football is also a very easy game. Because whether you wore a leather helmet or a plastic one, ran the single wing, the triple option, the read option or the run-and-shoot, winning football is played by being better and stronger up front. How many bad football teams can you recall that have been really good on both sides of the ball along the line of scrimmage? Most everybody who watched Penn State dismantle Maryland, 38-14, on a misty Saturday at Beaver Stadium will remember it perhaps as the best game Saquon Barkley has played in a brilliant young career with the Nittany Lions. He rushed for 202 yards. Or, they’ll remember it as the day Trace McSorley cemented himself as the quarterback on whose gritty approach Penn State’s fortunes rest. He threw for 152 yards and two touchdowns, then ran for 81 more with another score. Those are good things, for sure. But Barkley came into this season a good football player. So did McSorley. They are the stars for Penn State as it has turned its season around slightly in the last two weeks after the embarrassing 49-10 loss at Michigan on Sept. 24. But they have not been the driving force behind the turnaround. That’s been the offensive line, which simply overpowered a Maryland defense that ranked in the top 15 in the nation in scoring heading into the game. “Guys, it’s simple, and I’ve said it before: It’s up front. We’re maturing and growing up front,” head coach James Franklin said. “We’re more physical up front. We’re sustaining blocks. We’re getting a hat on a hat. When you’re able to do that, you’re going to have a successful offense, whether you’re running a post route, whether you’re running a spread, or running a wishbone. “I know everyone thinks this is a magic wand with this type of offense. But if you’re good up front, on the offensive and defensive lines, you have a chance to be successful. That’s the difference. We’re getting better on the O-line.” Let’s address a few issues the cynics are rightly going to mention at this point: ?¦ The Nittany Lions didn’t exactly beat the 1985 Chicago Bears. Maryland came into the game unbeaten, but it hadn’t played anybody of any consequence. There were big questions whether they could handle Penn State’s athleticism, and the Terrapins could not. ?¦ Suggesting the offensive line is improved — “getting better,” as Franklin put it — is not the same as saying the offensive line is great. It looked lost, overpowered and outgunned against Michigan just three weeks ago. In two weeks, it faces mighty Ohio State and will do so without perhaps its best member after right tackle Andrew Nelson was lost for the season with a leg injury, according to Franklin. For sure though, the offensive line is getting good enough to get Penn State through the next step in its rebuilding process, separating itself from teams like Minnesota and Maryland. Getting to that point was a long time coming. These last two weeks, albeit against middle-of-the-road Big Ten defenses, holes gradually started to appear in opposing defenses courtesy of Nelson and tackle Brendan Mahon, center Brian Gaia and freshman guards Ryan Bates and Lake-Lehman’s Connor McGovern, the cornerstones of the rebuilding process up front. All season, Franklin has been pointing merely to incremental progressions with this group. It started out missing assignments. It cleaned that up, getting blockers on defenders, but it struggled to move defenders to create bigger running lanes for Barkley to hit at a faster speed. That’s when the coaching staff began hitting these guys where it hurt, urging them to be more physical, to be nasty. “You don’t want to take that personally,” Mahon said. “But obviously, you do. You’re an offensive lineman. You’re in the trenches. You want to be physical. You want to finish plays. You want pancakes. You want all of that. “It was kind of motivation to almost put a spark under our butt, to get us going. Obviously, when you finish, Saquon gets to the second level and can do his thing. And I think we all know what that thing is.” But Barkley doesn’t get to the second level if guys like McGovern and Bates, who did that so often Saturday, do so more consistently. On Barkley’s critical 45-yard touchdown run with 15 seconds left in the first half, McGovern propelled forward off the snap, got a pop on defensive tackle Kingsley Opara, broke free to get a hit on cornerback William Likely III, and behind him Barkley made a dramatic cut that enabled him to sprint to the end zone untouched for a 24-14 lead. “When teams are loading the box, it’s hard to see eight guys in the box and figure all of that out,” Barkley said. “But all those guys really are starting to have a trust. I trust them, and they trust me. I trust that they’re going to give me a hole. And they trust that I’m going to make my guy miss. Those guys take a lot of hits, a lot of stuff in the media, but I’m so proud of those guys.” There was a lot to like Saturday, for the first time in a long time. As good as Barkley and McSorley are, they may be the biggest reason why, suddenly, there’s realistic hope in Happy Valley that things really might be turning around. DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist at The Times-Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.