At some point, Penn State's offensive line will have to be more than merely adequate
It’s incredibly difficult to play offensive line. Toughest job in football, far as I’m concerned.
That point hit me like an unblocked edge rusher on Sunday as I watched the Steelers somehow prevail in their NFL opener despite the struggles of their revamped front 5. In the first half of a 23-16 victory at Buffalo, Pittsburgh looked an awful lot like Penn State in the first 30 minutes of its opener. There were 3-and-outs and other short possessions, 2 sacks given up, little running room, 5 punts, 48 total yards and no points. Sound familiar?
Like Penn State against Wisconsin, the Steelers made enough adjustments and plays to pull out a hard-fought road victory with a good-enough second half from their offensive line. The unit certainly remains a work in progress, something for fans to fret about week in and week out.
The same holds true for Nittany Lions’ fans, who saw Noah Cain held in check (20 carries, 69 yards) and 3 sacks of PSU quarterbacks in Saturday’s 44-13 victory over visiting Ball State.
The big guys up front — the Lions go 15 deep at OL with guys at least 6-3 and 300 pounds — looked great for a quarter against the Cardinals, as did Sean Clifford and the rest of the offense. But overall, “adequate” seems the right adjective. “Solid” seems a bit of a reach, even acknowledging that the MAC showed out well in Week 2 (check the Notre Dame score) and Ball State is considered one of the league’s better teams.
No fans anywhere — except Madison, Wisconsin, maybe — think their team’s O-line is good enough. But you love those behemoths anyway, because you know it’s a thankless task that’s incredibly vital and almost impossible to do well. Can’t hold, can’t trip, can’t flinch. Have to be way more disciplined and synchronized than the monsters coming at you. If the defense sends more than 5 rushers, odds are you’ll get blamed for a breakdown that wasn’t even your fault.
Good help of this type is hard to find.
The search goes on under 8th-year coach James Franklin, with the program piling up 3- and 4-star recruits. The payoff hasn’t hit big yet; Penn State is in the same situation with its O-line group as it was with linebackers before Micah Parsons arrived. Back in 2018, I wondered if Parsons could restore the Linebacker U moniker for Penn State. Spoiler alert, he did.
Now, I’m hoping LT Rasheed Walker or one of his line mates can become a high NFL pick and start an O-line renaissance in Happy Valley. In the past 6 NFL Drafts, only 3 Penn State O-linemen have been selected, and 2 of those went in the final round this year — Michal Menet and Will Fries. Connor McGovern, who went to the Cowboys in the 3rd round in 2019, is the gold standard among Franklin-era recruits. In that same period, Wisconsin had 5 OLs drafted, picks in rounds 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
Penn State’s 2021 group could yet find its groove under 2nd-year line coach Phil Trautwein. Three of the 4 stalwarts of the group are former 4-star recruits, including Walker, who entered this season with significant NFL buzz. Starters Caedan Wallace and Juice Scruggs are also former 4-star recruits, and center Mike Miranda is a former 3-star with tons of experience in his 4th active season.
That should be a solid core to build around.
But with Penn State having climbed to No. 10 in the nation, renewing dreams of a first ever CFP invite, the pressure is on. And with No. 22 Auburn visiting Beaver Stadium 6 days from now for a White Out Saturday night with ESPN’s College GameDay crew on site, time is of the essence.
Through 2 games, the playmakers on offense and defense have produced enough magical moments to raise hopes of a truly special year for Penn State.
But it won’t happen without this line, at some point, coming of age.
Former Nittany Lion turned broadcaster/podcaster Brandon Noble put it in no uncertain terms on a recent episode of The Obligatory PSU Podcast. Noble, who played for PSU the 1 time the Lions defeated Auburn (1996 Outback Bowl), told a story about Russ Grimm’s NFL Hall of Fame speech.
Grimm, a member of the “Hogs” O-line of the 1980s’ Washington Redskins, was perfectly happy playing linebacker at Pitt before head coach Jackie Sherrill told him that he would move to center to start his junior season. Pitt line coach Joe Moore, sensing that Grimm needed some convincing, told him this: “There’s is nothing better than moving someone from Point A to Point B against their will.”
On the post-Wisconsin podcast, Noble applied that theme to Penn State.
“At some point in a football game, you have to be able to do that as an offensive line. And we have not been able to do that in a long time. … Eventually that is going to be necessary to win a football game, to put it away. … You don’t want to give Ohio State an extra possession, right? You don’t want to give Iowa an extra possession. … It’s something they have to work on. They should get better. They better get better.”
Nobler word have never been spoken.