No. 11 Penn State improving up front with Kent State up next
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Before he could escape a soggy Heinz Field and finally get out from under a steady downpour, Penn State running back Miles Sanders was stopped for an on-field interview.
After No. 11 Penn State’s 51-6 win over Pittsburgh, Sanders was quick and to the point — he thanked his offensive line.
As they had in the opening week, the five players in front of Sanders opened holes and blocked downfield. This time they stomped through mud and over Panthers for him and Sanders tipped them by averaging 7.4 yards per carry.
“We dominated the line of scrimmage,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
It’s become a trend.
Penn State has churned out more than 200 rushing yards in each of its last five games dating to last season. They’re now leaning on a solid core of highly recruited players — guards Steven Gonzalez and Connor McGovern, tackles Ryan Bates, Will Fries and Chasz Wright and center Connor McGovern — after recruiting woes left the Nittany Lions with some leaky lines early in Franklin’s tenure.
Over Franklin’s first two years in 2014 and 2015, Penn State ranked 120th and 106th in rushing offense and allowed 83 sacks in that span. Now, the Nittany Lions head into Saturday’s matchup at Beaver Stadium with Kent State (1-1) with the ability to pound the ball and gain the edge with speedy complementary pieces. They’re led by a well-protected quarterback who owns nearly every passing record in school history.
Golden Flashes head coach Sean Lewis knows the only way his team has a chance to win is to keep that quarterback — Heisman Trophy hopeful Trace McSorley — and his host of weapons off the field.
Stopping the run is the primary focus, Lewis said. Kent State wasn’t able to do that against its first Big Ten foe. The Golden Flashes surrendered 279 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-24 opening-day loss to Illinois.
They were much better against Howard, keying on run plays early to force the offense into third-and-long situations.
“When you go 2-for-17 and get off the field (on third down), it gives you an opportunity to go sit on the bench you can stay a heck of a lot fresher if you’re sitting on the bench,” Lewis said.
On the other side of the ball, Lewis has a few pieces he thinks can be effective against a Penn State defense that is relatively young up the middle.
The Golden Flashes have rushed for 538 yards and have scored seven touchdowns on the ground so far. They’re doing it with a committee approach. Led by former Auburn commit Woody Barrett, Kent State’s offense is a fast-paced unit that runs a lot of plays and uses plenty of personnel.
Justin Rankin has handled most of the workload with 27 carries for 199 yards while Jo-El Shaw and Will Matthews have combined for 26 with 157 yards and four touchdowns.
“We’re very fortunate with Jo-El, Justin and Will to have three kids there that we feel really confident with,” Lewis said. “Whoever’s the hot hand and can help us move the ball and help us run the football so that it sets up everything that we want to do in our offense, we’re going to play that hot hand.”
McSorley has had the hot hand for a while now for Penn State. He’s thrown a touchdown pass in 30 straight games and has overseen 22 wins in his last 25 starts. The three losses came by a combined seven points.
The senior quarterback hasn’t looked uncomfortable despite turnover that’s included stars Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton along with offensive architect Joe Moorhead, who left to coach Mississippi State.
Instead, he’s helped aid wideout KJ Hamler’s transition. Hamler leads the team with three touchdown catches.
“This will be as fast of a tempo team that we have played,” Franklin said. “They like to run the counter. They like to run the zone read. They like to run the split zone and the power play. They love the quick game and the RPO stuff and then everything runs through the quarterback.”