UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Speaking to Penn State offensive line coach Mac McWhorter on a teleconference, it's easy to wonder whether an actual person is on the other end of the line or if the voice you're hearing is an automaton programmed to be charming, Southern, upbeat, and homey, unfailingly and delightfully so.
Ask him how he's doing this morning, and McWhorter says: "Just bitin', scratchin', clawin', kickin'."
Ask him about the year he spent in retirement before coming to Penn State, and he says he really enjoyed tailgating in Georgia.
Ask him about his wife, and he says "Mama Hog" (a term of endearment) is still baking Hog Treats for the linemen on Friday nights.
Playing on the Penn State offensive line doesn't just sound like fun, it sounds like utopia. But the play of the line this season hasn't matched the sunny vibe associated with the group.
No matter how positive and motivated the personnel and the man coaching them are, the offensive line is not thriving. What was supposed to be an experienced strength for Penn State (3-2) has been a large part of its undoing at times this season.
The Indiana loss Saturday provided the clearest example of its weaknesses. Against a defense that had allowed about 248 rushing yards per game, Penn State finished with 70 and effectively ditched the ground game in the second half as Christian Hackenberg attempted a school-record 55 passes.
Signs of trouble popped up earlier in the season, too. Penn State couldn't run the ball against Syracuse, gaining 57 yards on 38 attempts. In the first two games, Penn State allowed seven sacks and has allowed 11 for the year.
While it's not fair or accurate to pin these problems solely on the offensive line, they are an indicator. And right now, Penn State's rushing offense is 11th in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions have given up more sacks this year than every Big Ten team except Northwestern and Illinois.
The personnel difference between this line and last year is the absence of tackle Mike Farrell and center Matt Stankiewitch. Both were considered leaders, with Stankiewitch honored as first-team all-Big Ten and Farrell honorable mention. Penn State's starters this year, though -- Ty Howle, John Urschel, Miles Dieffenbach, Adam Gress and Donovan Smith -- all gained experience last year.
The play of the offensive line was a touchy subject this week for coach Bill O'Brien.
"Our offensive line has improved every week," he said. "And our offensive line will be ready to go on Saturday."
McWhorter said that in his experience, one of the most important characteristics for an offensive line is cohesion. He wants his guys to jell. Howle said it's an "ever-changing" aspect, and McWhorter agrees. Cohesion is something Penn State will continue to strive for, knowing the line's improvement is vital for the rest of the season.
"You don't really have to have it done by this date or that date," McWhorter said. "I can say this: I think offensive lines, probably along with other positions, you're always a work in progress."
Game: Penn State (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) vs. Michigan (5-0, 1-0).
When: 5 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
Mark Dent: email@example.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05. First Published October 10, 2013 8:27 PM