Just over one year ago, on November 11th, 2017, Penn State hosted Rutgers at Beaver Stadium and won going away, 35-6, despite a sluggish first half on offense. That sluggish first half saw current NFL superstar Saquon Barkley rush 4 times for (-6) yards. This Saturday’s game, then, serves as a handy late season examination of our offensive line’s year-over-year progress.
To set the stage for this week’s exam, we’re taking a look back at last year’s first half rushes to establish our baseline for measuring progress. Small children and those with weak stomachs should skip ahead to the comment section. The rest of you...steel yourselves, now. It gets downright ugly.
Kill The Lights
The first rush last year is a familiar one - the lead draw. The OL takes a pass pro set. Mike Gesicki, from the wing, serves as the “lead” blocker (aka, fullback). Miles Sanders - who started this game in place of Saquon, due to kick return duties - takes the delayed hand-off, bounces it wide, finds the corner on his own (by breaking a safety’s ankles), gets a block on the CB from DaeSean Hamilton, and picks up 14 yards. Savor this success.
Rush number two is an empty backfield, jet sweep to Miles Sanders. Will Fries whiffs on the middle linebacker, who, along with the unblocked safety, makes the tackle after a gain of 4.
Alright - we’re including one pass play in this film room, but it’s part of a larger point. Rutgers DT Jon Bateky, the 31st best player in the state of Maryland in 2015, makes quick work of Jersey native LG Steven Gonzalez. They’ll face off again this coming Saturday.
Coach Franklin correctly pointed out one tremendous improvement for 2018 PSU - a significant reduction in Tackles For Loss Allowed. This year’s squad is tied for 47th nationally, allowing 5.4 TFLs per game. Last year’s squad finished 117th, allowing 7 TFLs per game.
Below is one of those brutal TFLs. Saquon Barkley aligns in the “pistol”, behind Trace McSorley, to disguise his intended direction on this 1st and 10, inside zone run. Mike Gesicki gives an ¡Olé! to Rutgers’ OLB, and Barkley’s planted for a loss of 6. This one appears to be on either Gesicki or LT Fries, who goes after the same MLB that OC Connor McGovern tries to reach.
Here comes another Lead Draw - again, foolishly wasting Mike Gesicki as a fullback. (Love you, Joe Mo. But perfect you weren’t.)
A harbinger of 2018 - Trace McSorley to the rescue, via decisive read option. The unblocked DE tackles Barkley. McSorley keeps, makes two dudes miss, and scores.
Two tight ends, one pulling guard - this is supposed to be some kind of Power run on 3rd and short. It fails horribly. Mahon falls down, Gonzo can’t pick a hole, and their two targets blow up the play for another loss.
Inside zone. Gesicki can’t handle the DE, and someone - probably LT Will Fries - forgets to block the linebacker.
Inside zone again. Rutgers DT Bateky must be country strong. He blows up Brendan Mahon with the same push-pull that he used on Gonzo above. Rutgers DE Kevin Wilkins, the 32nd best player in New Jersey in 2014, whips LT Fries.
Hit The Lights
That was exactly how you remembered the 2017 offense, right? (Yeah, right).
It was not a great half of rush offense for Dear Old State. It wasn’t particularly great in the second half, either. Our boys finished the contest with 31 carries for just 92 yards - a paltry 2.9 ypc.
This Saturday’s exam in north Jersey offers an opportunity for redemption, particularly for Jersey natives Gonzo and Fries. Has this much ballyhooed (in the pre-season, at least) offensive line actually improved, or has it inexplicably gone backward? Place your bets in the comments.