By Thomas Frank Carr
- Heisman Rush
Saquon Barkley will have another chance to showcase his ability Saturday in Bloomington. The Hoosiers haven’t held a single team under 21 points since the start of Big 10 play. They have talented pieces on defense in cornerback Rashard Fant, leading tackler Tegray Scales, who is 3rd in the Big 10 in tackles, and several and quick defensive linemen.
That matters very little though with the way Barkley is playing. When asked about Barkley’s name starting to be mentioned in Heisman conversations Head Coach James Franklin said it’s not just about Barkley,
“His name is going to start coming up in some conversations and rightfully so. Although it is looked at as an individual award and an individual honor, we don’t look at it that way. The whole team has hand an impact in Saquon’s success.”
It’s not just the big plays where Barkley is making strides. He’s also limiting his negative plays as well. Last week Saquon Barkley had exactly one run that went for negative or zero yards. He had 25 in the first five games. Franklin pointed out one of the obvious, but major factors to that,
“Our offensive line is a lot better. They are older; they are more mature; their techniques and fundamentals, and then we have depth now.I think the other factor is Trace McSorley. His ability to run the ball out the back end of the play, keep the defense honest, design quarterback runs that we have, as well. I think all of those things have kind of factored in; that everybody just can’t key on Saquon all the time.”
Can Barkley hit 200 yards again this week? The scary thing is that at this point, that’s a reasonable expectation.
- Uncharted Waters
The Nittany Lions are in virgin snow right now for this program under James Franklin. The team is on a five game winning streak, beat the then 2nd best team in the nation, and are not only ranked, but ranked highly for the first time during his tenure. Franklin is aware of what challenges winning presents,
“Young people in general, a lot of times handle adversity better than success. As soon as you have some success you can become complacent and feel like you have arrived I think it’s a challenge.”
Which brings us to the fact that Franklin said the word “Indiana” 15 times in a row to emphasize what his team is focused on this week. The message is clear that he and his staff are trying to do everything they can to keep this team on the path towards running the table. So far it’s working.
- Going For a Drive
Let’s start with the obvious; everything worked for the Nittany Lions vs Iowa.
They had success in just about every phase of the game, including ones that they had struggled with previously in the year. The Nittany Lions completed 50 percent of their third downs. Trace McSorley had a completion percentage of 61 percent, and they had four drives of over eight plays.
Your eyes may be crossed from all of those numbers but they boil down to one simple fact- the Nittany Lions dominated the time of possession and sustained drives. They had struggled to do that on offense throughout the season, relying on big plays to make up the difference. It seemed that they turned a corner last week and to continue that would be a great sign that the team has matured and become more balanced on offense.
- Speed Force
Outside of Ohio State, Indiana is the fastest team that Penn State has faced on its five game winning streak. The Hoosiers are also more balanced than the Buckeyes on offense. For one, Marcus Allen is excited for the challenge to play a team that is passing oriented instead of a run first team.
“I love that. As far as a quarterback that likes to like give us chances to break on the ball and make more impact plays in the passing game. That’s a great feeling to have. Last game [against Iowa], it was a more running-oriented team. This is a great week to play against a throwing quarterback.
It’s not just physical speed that Indiana relies upon. They play at a breakneck pace that will make substitution a nightmare for the defense. Linebacker Brandon Bell knows that it will be a challenge given how well they are coached.
“You put those two things together, skill and the expertise to a scheme and you do it fast, you can catch people off guard. It can be dangerous.”
This is the biggest challenge that the Nittany Lions defense will face the rest of the year. Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow gets rid of the ball quickly so getting to the quarterback will be much harder this week as well.
With all of that said, Indiana hasn’t shown the ability to put it all together versus top tier teams and the Nittany Lions are a top tier team now. Unless the defense takes a gigantic step backwards, they should be up to the task.
- Tackle Football
The biggest issue that Penn State will face as the season goes on is the depth at the tackle position. Losing Andrew Nelson hurt, but Paris Palmer stepped in admirably. Losing Brendan Mahon has alarming consequences. Franklin was typically tight lipped when it came to the status of Mahon, but he did offer some insight into the contingency plan if the offense gets any thinner at their bookend positions.
“Connor McGovern obviously played a lot of tackle during spring ball. That was a big discussion that we had obviously when the season started and he wasn’t doing that anymore. Bates is a guy we’re working out there a little bit out there, as well, to create some more depth.”
The biggest issue with that obviously is that the team would be moving its young guards out of their positions where they have blossomed into fantastic players, to a new, unfamiliar role, with new unfamiliar responsibilities. It also weakens the middle of the pocket and may limit Trace McSorley’s ability to step up and evade pressure, which is one of the reasons he hasn’t been sacked nearly as much as Hackenberg was in 2015.
These are all theoretical concerns however. For now, Chaz Wright is playing admirably in spot duty this year and looked excellent at right tackle vs Iowa.
Speaking of Wright, he will have to prove this week that he can handle speed around the outside. The sophomore behemoth is 6’7” 340+ pounds. He played very well versus Iowa, but Iowa lacks the speed that Indiana and other teams possess. If he is called upon to play the position for the rest of the season, he needs to show that he can handle all types of rushers. Franklin says that two defensive ends on the practice squad have prepared all the tackles for that,
“A guy that we’re excited about for the future, Shaka Toney, (he) is as quick and as fast as any guy their going to see. He and Shane Simmons really give out guys fits in practice.”
Not only that but Franklin and his staff have prepared them for all manner of rushers,
“We do a speed rush period. We bring DBs. You asked a tackle sometimes to block a corner who is blitzing off an edge, but if you never do that in practice… so we bring DBs and linebackers to act as blitzers. So that helps as well.”
Based on what we’ve seen this year from the offensive line, it has helped tremendously. Don’t expect a drop off in productivity this week, even with a young tackle.