By: Thomas Frank Carr
- Warm Welcome
This largely has nothing to do with the game but two years ago the Nittany Lions and their fans were treated to the hospitable New Jersey welcome from the Rutgers faithful.
Not to paint with a broad brush, but they were awful people.
From inappropriate “Ped State” t-shirts, to vulgarity, to throwing food, you had it all two years ago. For some reason Rutgers fans think that harassment, wildly inappropriate t-shirts and conduct bordering on simple assault will create a ‘rivalry’.
If you’re going to the game, be careful and travel in packs. No man (or woman) left behind.
- Colonel Sanders
Mile Sanders might have a chance to make a huge impact on the game this Saturday. He’s been very close to breaking a kickoff return for a touchdown in the past several games. Penn State Head Coach James Franklin is pleased with that,
“You look at drive start average, and field position, it’s something that we’ve been really, really good at all year long. I think it’s had a major factor in our success and a real improvement from the previous year.”
With the state of the offensive line (more to come on that later), the Nittany Lions may need to find points in other places than the offense. Defense and special teams points will be critical to getting a blowout win that Penn State fans would love to see.
- Game Wreckers
These are the types of games that can surprise a team like Penn State. This is why the mantra of ‘one game at a time’ exists. Rutgers comes into the game at 2-8 and at times looks like a fully disinterested team. They are just trying to put all the pieces together according to Franklin,
“I think they’re a talented team. That’s with a new coaching staff and all the changes that come with that, which I can relate to. There is an adjustment period that goes on. So I think this is a team that is kind of just waiting for the light to go on for them and have their moment. They got all the pieces of the puzzle to be successful.”
One of those talents on the defensive side of the ball is defensive tackle Darius Hamilton,
“He’s big strong and physical. He’s the guy we’ve identified. We identify guys as game wreckers. The other guy is (Julian Pinnix-) Odrick, the half brother of the guy of the guy who played here. Those two guys have been very productive for them. We want to make sure they don’t have a significant impact on the game, trying to limit what they do a little bit. He can overpower you, there’s no doubt about it.”
On the offensive side of the ball those game wreckers are running back Robert Martin and freshman wide receiver Jawuan Harris. Martin is talented but injury prone and Harris is a spark-plug type player who infuses the Rutgers offense with speed and explosion.
Yes, even Rutgers has talented players.
Last week Trace McSorley sustained a lower body injury on the third drive of the game vs. Indiana. Now the running game wasn’t exactly lighting anyone up before, but it flat-lined after McSorley exited for a play last Saturday. The redshirt-sophomore only ran three more times for 22 yards that game and Saquon Barkley ended the game with a 1.8 yard per carry average.
With McSorley injured, that allowed Indiana to replicate the Minnesota game plan of attacking Saquon Barkley relentlessly with no consequence. While McSorley made up for his lack of running ability by taking the team on his back, (or more accurately, his arm) it still limited the Penn State offense. That is the main reason that Penn State struggled last week.
If McSorley has any lingering issues with his ankle this week, the Nittany Lions may very well struggle on offense once again. Tight End Mike Gesicki knows what it’s like to play through injuries and doesn’t think it will be an issue,
“If you’re not ready to play through injury and play a physical game, football’s not the game for you. Obviously I’ve had to play through some injuries, and Trace has played through injuries. Everybody does it. It’s just something that’s a mindset, if you tell yourself enough that you’re not hurting and it’s going to be all right.”
If there is one thing that we cannot question this year, it’s McSorley’s toughness. He’s taken some brutal hits through 10 games and gotten back up every time.
It’s not the toughness and the mindset that fans should be worried about, it’s his mobility.
- This is Getting Redundant
I’ve been writing this column for roughly three years now. Over those three years there has been some iteration of ‘offensive line is in trouble’ in roughly 93 percent of those articles.
Once again the offensive line is the biggest question mark for the Penn State Nittany Lions going into the game this Sunday. From left to right, the Nittany Lions have:
Freshman, Freshman, Senior, Freshman Sophomore
Left guard Stephen Gonzalez is the latest freshman to make his first start for the Nittany Lions this year. Franklin says that communication has been good this week with his young line,
“It’s been good but it’s always been a concern, especially when you have moving parts with those five guys. And then when you’re on the road when you have to deal with noise, it’s a challenge. We’re working on it all week long. It helps that Brian Gaia, who does most of the communication is still at that position.
Gaia explains how that communication works,
“It’s pretty much a domino effect, I’ll make the call loud, the tackle might not hear it with crowd noise. The guard will echo it to the tackle and then if it needs to get to the tight end the tackle will echo it to the tight end.”
Gaia is the only offensive linemen listed as a starter this week that has starting experience that predates the 2016 season. He has started 35 games coming into this weekend. The four other linemen? 17 starts…combined.
Being on the same page is critical in football. Having to deal with noise, and relaying messages from center to tackle can be a problem if you’re going through a player (Gonzalez) who is making his first career start. It can get to be a game of phone tag,
“Kinda. I’ll yell something and I’ll have to yell it again,. Or I’ll have to slap the guard and say ‘you tell him’ or something like that.”
This is why taking the crowd out of the game is critical for the Nittany Lions on Saturday. If not, it could be a huge headache for the Nittany Lions. Franklin reminds us of one simple fact about the shuffling of his offensive line,
“We’ve been doing it for three years. It is what it is.”
At least they’re well practiced.