Penn State linemen putting up good front for offense
Penn State quarterback Matthew McGloin was sacked three times Saturday, but otherwise, the Nittany Lions offensive line kept Illinois' talented defensive line in check.
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Weeks ago, offensive guard John Urschel willingly accepted some of the blame. This was after Penn State's loss to Virginia.
From the onset of that game, Virginia defenders swarmed quarterback Matt McGloin. Third-and-long was the norm. The offensive line was struggling.
Three games later, a weakness has evolved into a strength. Although no concrete stats portray the utility of an offensive line, the indicators point to improvement. Penn State's rushing offense has averaged 152 yards per game, and red-zone efficiency has increased.
"We've certainly made some strides, just improving with communication, just working together," Urschel said. "We've seen the fruits of that."
An unwritten rule of sorts states that college offensive lines tend to feature the most interesting, diverse cast of characters on a given team. Penn State's group proves this theorem.
Urschel is the team genius. Guard Miles Dieffenbach has never had a drop of alcohol. Center Matt Stankiewitch can bust the chops of anyone. Tackle Donovan Smith might play in the NFL. Tackle Mike Farrell is president of the team's nonprofit group, Uplifting Athletes.
If the group struggles, then the individual linemen are anonymous to the majority. If the group jells into a force, then each individual's story gets to shine, celebrated as a vital, eclectic part of a cohesive unit. Penn State illustrated last week that its line is geared for the latter.
While the shortcomings of Illinois are numerous and apparent, the team's defensive line is not one of them. Multiple preseason publications highlighted the Illini's defensive line as its greatest strength. Defensive tackle Akeem Spence is fourth on the team in tackles, and defensive end Michael Buchanan is a 6-foot-6, 250-pound NFL prospect.
Last week, before the game, Dieffenbach called the Illinois front four the best the Lions had played all season. The Illini flashed hints of their potential, sacking McGloin three times, including one for a 19-yard loss. They otherwise struggled.
Penn State's success was best illustrated late in the second half. With the Nittany Lions already ahead by an insurmountable margin, they kept pushing. Zach Zwinak closed the game, riding behind his blockers for 51 yards in the second half.
They had changed since that Virginia game. Back then, Urschel spoke of a need to communicate better. He wanted the offensive line to see the defense through "the same set of eyes." Such a quality can be earned through being more vocal and through preparation.
"The worst thing you can have happen is have two guys thinking one thing and two guys thinking another thing," Urschel said.
Several of the linemen have credited offensive line coach Mac McWhorter, who previously coached at Texas, with helping them improve. He has brought several changes to the program.
At the beginning of each practice, he hands the linemen a sheet of tips and reminders. Urschel says it helps them focus on the mental side of the game, an aspect McWhorter routinely preaches.
Every Thursday, the linemen receive a written exam. They are asked by McWhorter to answer questions about the other team's depth charts, formations, blocking patterns and all the intricacies necessary for a line to function as a whole.
"It's definitely gotten better as the season has gone on," Dieffenbach said of their grades on the quizzes.
He could say the same about the offensive line in general. The differing personalities answered their own self-criticisms after Virginia and are communicating as well as they have.
"We've really become a pretty tight-knit group," Dieffenbach said.
First Published October 3, 2012 12:00 am