Penn State offensive line feeling urgency as brutal stretch nears
UNIVERSITY PARK –– After Saturday's game at Northwestern, No. 4 Penn State has one of the most grueling three-game stretches of any FBS team this season after next week's bye.
Considering the strength of those three opponents following the Wildcats –– No. 7 Michigan, No. 10 Ohio State and Michigan State –– it would be easy to expect the Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) to look through Northwestern.
But that's not how the Nittany Lions operate. Despite their undefeated record, they aren't satisfied with how they have played.
If Saturday's game against Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) isn't the most important game on Penn State's schedule, coach James Franklin's team could use it as a final tuneup to fix its mistakes before the real test begins. The offensive line has been the biggest area of concern through the first five games.
“I think our O-line is playing good enough to win, but we need to get better,” Franklin said. “All five have to be playing at a high level or people would say, ‘The O-line is not doing as well as they should.' ”
For one, they haven't settled on a starting right tackle as Chasz Wright, Andrew Nelson and Will Fries have started at the position. Chemistry is a key part of an offensive line's success, and not having a set right tackle could hinder the unit's cohesion.
A good portion of the plays on which Saquon Barkley was stopped in the backfield have been run behind the right tackle. Other times, whatever holes the offensive line had created for Barkley have closed before he could reach the second level.
Quarterback Trace McSorley also has seen his share of pressure as defenders have forced him to rush his throws or brought him down for a sack. The junior has been sacked nine times in the past two games. The offensive line's underwhelming recent performances come after Franklin and most Penn State players raved about the unit during preseason camp. Whether or not all the hype was warranted, the Nittany Lions believe their offensive line will start playing better.
“There's always room for improvement, and we can get better obviously,” left tackle Ryan Bates said after the Indiana game. “There's definitely a bad taste in our mouths because we know what we can do, and how we can do it, and we're better than how we played today.”
Saturday's game at Northwestern gives the offensive line an opportunity to show it's better than how it has played the past two games. If not, the adjustment curve is going to get steeper in matchups against Michigan and Ohio State.
Matt Martell is a freelance writer.