No. 2 Penn State boosted by physical offensive line
By TRAVIS JOHNSON
Oct. 22, 2017
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — A plate of snacks is prepared and sent over to each Penn State offensive lineman, along with a reminder, the night before games.
It's an appreciated gesture by Trace McSorley's mom, Andrea, who includes a friendly note for Penn State's big men to protect her son. On Friday, doughnuts did the trick.
"Victory doughnuts," right guard Brendan Mahon said.
Although Mahon couldn't confirm whether the baked goods gave No. 2 Penn State the boost it needed to overpower Michigan's feared front seven in a 42-13 victory Saturday night, he could point at the unit's physicality as proof it's improving.
A grittier performance was what Penn State coach James Franklin wanted to see against the hard-hitting Wolverines and what he wants moving forward. The Nittany Lions' toughest stretch continues with trips to No. 6 Ohio State and No. 16 Michigan State, where they'll face two more top-20 defenses.
While they didn't amass pancake blocks against the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions sustained blocks longer and set up more in the second level to create additional space for star tailback Saquon Barkley and McSorley.
"I think together as an offensive line, that was the best game we've played so far," Mahon said. "To put up those numbers against a defense like that and come out successful and put up points like that is amazing."
The Wolverines entered having allowed an FBS-lowest 223 total yards per game. But Penn State's front five blew open holes and sealed off cutback lanes to generate 224 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
With a wall of blue jerseys in front of him, Barkley took a direct snap up the middle for an untouched, 69-yard touchdown on his first carry. The Heisman Trophy candidate was gone as soon as he cut back to his left as left guard Steven Gonzalez and center Connor McGovern drove Maurice Hurst and Chase Winovich off the ball and right tackle Will Fries burst into the second level to tie up linebacker Devin Bush.
Meanwhile, left tackle Ryan Bates had Michigan star Rashan Gary handled, tracking Gary's wide pursuit and placing a few well-timed shoves to eliminate him from the play.
"It starts up front, and those guys owned it today and really took ownership of that and played amazing for us," Barkley said.
Penn State piled on an additional 282 passing yards and McSorley had time to throw multiple deep passes.
He was sacked twice and took a violent, late hit in the lower back from Winovich, but was able to stand in the pocket and wait for deep plays to develop.
"When you're able to complete long balls, shots down the field against a team that is trying to sack your quarterback and trying to play man coverage, you're going to be difficult to deal with," Franklin said.
Penn State was waiting for this type of cohesion to develop up front.
Having started four different combinations of linemen so far, the Nittany Lions appear settled with the configuration they used Saturday. Fries impressed at right tackle where Penn State has started both Chasz Wright and Andrew Nelson.
Michigan's top defensive linemen — Gary, Hurst and Winovich — combined for seven tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. Hurst twisted his way through McGovern and Gonzalez to bring McSorley down early on while Gary and Winovich put together bigger highlights in warmups.
Two hours before the game, both Gary and Winovich took runs at the padded goalpost in Beaver Stadium's north end, exploding into it, smacking it and sidestepping it as if they were chasing McSorley.
Hours later, both players sat on Michigan's sideline with their elbows on their knees and watched as Penn State sacked their teammate John O'Korn for the seventh and final time.
"Not exactly sure when it happened, but when you put up scores like we were, up by a certain amount you can see guys start to break and you can kind of sense it," Mahon said.
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