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Penn State offensive line looks to step up against Illinois

| Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, 10:12 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Trib Total Media file
Penn State guard Miles Dieffenbach (65) looks for an Eastern Michigan defender to block during their game Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, in University Park.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State running back Bill Belton (1) gains yardage against Central Florida during their game at Beaver Stadium on Sept., 14, 2013, in University Park.

Entering the season, no position group for Penn State was more experienced than the offensive line. And as the season enters its final month, none has been more stable in terms of personnel.

Could that change when the Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-2) host Illinois (3-4, 0-3) at noon Saturday?

A lineup change seems unlikely — even if the official depth chart suggests it could happen. But following the line's second consecutive game in which it allowed four sacks and the fourth this season in which the run game could manage no better than a 3.0 per-carry average, the unit acknowledged it could be better.

“There's definitely room for improvement,” guard Miles Dieffenbach said.

With three returning starters and a combined 27 seasons on campus among the top six at the position, the offensive line was expected to be among Penn State's strengths this season.

Right tackle has been split between Garry Gilliam and Adam Gress, but (left to right) Donovan Smith, Dieffenbach, Ty Howle and John Urschel have started all seven games at their respective positions. That accounts for four of the nine spots in Penn State's overall lineup that have featured the same player for every game.

But has the offensive line performed like a team strength?

“Obviously, we're into the later part of the season now, and I think we're coming along and gelling,” Howle said. “You're never perfect; you've always got things work on.”

Quantifying an offensive line's performance, of course, is problematic. Too many outside factors can contribute. Only recently have advanced metrics been popularized for evaluating linemen performance in the NFL – and even those are largely used just by a niche audience.

A glance at more basic statistics doesn't paint a positive picture.

Three times this season, Penn State has averaged fewer than two yards per rush. The Lions have allowed at least four sacks three times. If you take away the games against Kent State and Eastern Michigan — teams that have combined for one victory this season against FBS opponents — Penn State is averaging 106.3 rushing yards (a number that would rank 113th nationally) and 2.7 per carry.

During last week's blowout loss at Ohio State, it was clear that Smith was having trouble pass protecting against standout lineman Noah Spence. Three days later when Penn State's official depth chart came out, Smith had the dreaded “OR” next to his name at left tackle. Gilliam, who's dealt with an “OR” with Gress at right tackle since Week 3, is now – officially at least – a co-starter at both tackle spots.

Gilliam, though, said early this week that his practice reps were no different and he had not practiced at left tackle since the preseason.

“We understand competition makes us all better,” said Gilliam, a converted tight end. “There's no hard feelings about who… starts. We're all going to play regardless, and we understand that.”

Illinois is last in the conference in sacks with seven in seven games. The Illini are 11th in the Big Ten total defense, 10th in scoring defense and 11th in rush defense. In short, Illinois may be just the tonic the Lions' line needs to get itself on track.

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at c adamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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