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Evaluating the Penn State Offensive Line’s Performance Against Wisconsin

The offensive line had a rough go of it against Michigan in Ann Arbor. For a team that was talking about the offensive line as a strength coming into the season, it was a disappointing performance for sure. Against Wisconsin, they had a chance to right the ship a bit and show that they can be that dominant unit that Penn State fans have been pining for.

They may not quite have hit the “dominant” benchmark, but the unit was much improved on Saturday, albeit against a significantly weaker defensive line and defense as a whole. Let’s take a look at some of what went right and wrong for the Nittany Lion offensive line against the Badgers.

3rd-and-3 at PSU 44 (13:10 – 1st): McSorley Sacked by Baun and Van Ginkel for a loss of 9 yards

One of the changes in this game was the flipping of Will Fries to left tackle and Ryan Bates to right tackle. Fries had been struggling at right tackle recently, and the staff clearly saw something they liked in practice with the two switched. That being said, Fries and left guard Steven Gonzalez haven’t played next to each other too often, which may have helped lead to this sack.

Fries needs to be able to lock up his man here and keep him from attacking that space left open by Gonzalez, but Gonzalez also needs to do a better job of identifying the twist coming across the formation. Had he been able to step forward and block that man up, McSorley would have had a lane to step up into and perhaps find Thompkins, Freiermuth, or an off-screen Miles Sanders for a first down. To be fair, McSorley should also be getting the ball out quicker on a 3rd-and-3 play.

2nd-and-4 at WIS 41 (9:30 – 1st): McSorley run for 1 yard

The line does a nice job on this play, giving McSorley a nice pocket. Both tight end Nick Bowers and running back Miles Sanders stay in on this snap, which surely helps. But the offensive line swallows up their assignments, including the late-blitzing linebacker, and gives their quarterback plenty of time to throw. It seemed that McSorley had the freedom to remain in the pocket until something opened up, but he chose to escape to the right, perhaps trying to get a defender to step forward and open something up for a big play.

3rd-and-1 at WIS 43 (4:25 – 1st): Miles Sanders run for 6 yards

Just watch Ryan Bates and Pat Freiermuth on this play. Both of their men are in a position to make a play on Sanders and force a fourth down, but neither is able to do so because both Nittany Lions finished their blocks all the way to the turf. Sanders absolutely helps the play happen with some nifty footwork, but had these two not continued playing until their men were on the ground, this drive that eventually ended with a 49-yard Jake Pinegar field goal would have been over right then and there.

3rd-and-3 at PSU 35 (13:02 – 2nd): McSorley pass incomplete to Freiermuth

Another nice job by the offensive line picking up a stunt. It was not nearly as fast or well-executed a stunt as they saw last week against the Wolverines, but they gave McSorley more than enough time to get rid of the ball on third down. Everyone on the line does a good job of allowing the Wisconsin linemen to come to them but keeping their form as a unit while doing so. When Fries and Bates engage late in the play, they’re in line with their teammates enough that there are no obvious holes for the stunts to break through.

Though Freiermuth ended up dropping the pass (one of two drops on the day), this was a well-blocked play for Penn State on a style of rush that has been troubling them recently.

1st-and-10 at PSU 40 (10:40 – 2nd): Sanders run for 17 yards

Not just a nice job by the offensive line here shifting down the line with Sanders, but a nice job by the entire team helping to spring the star running back. Bates seals off the edge allowing Sanders to get wide, while Justin Shorter immediately occupies the corner in front of him. As the play develops, DeAndre Thompkins gets a hold of his man, and K.J. Hamler sprints out ahead forming a caravan.

It was total team blocking efforts like this one that sprung Saquon Barkley so many times over the previous three seasons. Those efforts have been largely absent for the majority of this season, but Saturday’s game step in the right direction for the receivers in the blocking department.

3rd-and-7 at WIS 40 (9:34 – 2nd): Sanders run for 23 yards

Another nice job run blocking here by the line (and Freiermuth). Sanders has his pick of which hole to attack and opts for the cut back lane (which seems like it was where the play was supposed to go). Thanks to his natural ability, he is able to make a few defenders look silly and bust it for a big gain. Nice job by Bates and McGovern forcing their guys way outside on the left of the screen.

2nd-and-7 at WIS 47 (3:40 – 2nd): Stevens sacked by Ryan Connelly for a loss of 10 yards

Gonzalez needs to do a better job identifying this much earlier in the sequence, especially given that Connelly didn’t hide what he was doing- he took off right away. The left guard needs to be able to get off the double team and plug the giant hole in the middle of the line. It is worth noting that Connelly did a great job of squaring up in front of Stevens on this, eliminating any possibility of stepping up past his pass rush.

1st-and-10 at WIS 27 (2:04 – 2nd): McSorley sacked by Baun for a loss of 8 yards

Fries was beaten badly here with a simple speed rush. If he wants to keep this left tackle job, he can’t allow guys to get around the edge with as little effort as was exerted here. Still, for those chastising Fries for allowing McSorley to once again get injured (he left the game for the rest of the half after this play), it was actually the second guy on the pile who drove McSorley’s knee into the turf, which seemed to be the cause for pain.

1st-and-10 at PSU 38 (2:00 – 3rd): Sanders run for 29 yards

Excellent job here by McGovern and Bates to clear the initial hole, but this was really impressive work from center Michal Menet. He started by delivering a chip block on McGovern’s man, stepped up and scanned for pressure on the backside, then identified the free defender and came all the way across in front of Sanders to deliver the block that truly sprung the junior tailback. Great play all around to immediately flip the field following a Wisconsin three-and-out.

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