When a team rides the emotional roller coaster like Penn State did last week in Iowa, you can learn a thing or two about the resiliency of the team in how they bounce back the next week. Penn State bounced back in a big way against Indiana this past weekend, dominating from start to finish, 45-14. In fact, the Hoosiers trailed in this one for all but 13 seconds. That’s how long it took Saquon Barkley to field the opening kickoff and go 98 yards for the score. It was the first kick return touchdown for Penn State in six years. The Nittany Lions never relinquished the lead.
Penn State improved to 5-0 on the season after the win, and are almost halfway to completing their goal from the onset: make the College Football Playoff. Of course, the hardest part of the season is on the horizon for the Nittany Lions, and they haven’t been tested as they’re going to be in the coming weeks, but it’s still a promising start nonetheless.
It’s difficult to find flaws or things that need to be improved in wins such as this. There were some standouts, however, from this beatdown of a lesser opponent to take away.
1. The Special Teams Are Certainly Special
I mentioned the special teams a few weeks ago, touting their efforts to that point in the season, and it’s only fair I do it again after the performance they put forth this past weekend. Of course, the opening kick return by Saquon Barkley was electrifying and kick started the game in dramatic fashion, but it was the play of the other special teamers that really put this game away.
Let’s start with that kick return. If you rewatch the return like many Staters likely have 1000 times already, you’ll notice one thing in particular: Barkley takes exactly what his blockers have set up for him. Credit Barkley, credit the other remaining ten players on the field, or credit poor Indiana coverage, but you must credit the special team unit as a whole for the execution of that return.
Then there’s the forced fumble recovered for a touchdown by Nick Scott. Scott, a natural runner by all accounts, did a good job of scooping, securing and scoring off the forced fumble. But it was the hustle of wide receiver Irvin Charles that really made the play happen. The gunner got around his block while staying within his lane and flew to the return man, getting into hitting position as the ball was being fielded. He wrapped up well and was able to pry the football loose for Scott to pick up and scamper into the endzone with.
Finally, kick coverage in general was superior this past weekend for the Nittany Lions. The Hoosiers had the opportunity to return four kicks, two punts and two kick returns. In total, Indiana secured 36 total yards on those kicks, including just four on two punt return attempts. The kick coverage all season long has been tremendous, and you have to give credit to Special Teams Coach Charles Huff for consistently having his players one step ahead of the competition by committing to their personal lanes and not straying from said lanes, thus limiting holes for returners to fly through.
2. The Offensive Line Needs A Ton Of Work
Offensive linemen aren’t a group that you can easily assess. You can’t just go to a box score after the game concludes, look at total yards, or completions or touchdowns and find an offensive lineman’s statistical day. The only real stats provided for offensive linemen are pancakes, an almost entirely arbitrary number, and sacks allowed, which is more easily categorized, but still often difficult with the unpredictable schemes that defenses often run. So one has to go back and watch, play for play, the progression of an offensive line as the unit gets into the swing of the game. What I saw from Penn State’s offensive line as the game progressed this weekend was not encouraging.
Too often did we see Trace McSorley have to climb the pocket or leave it entirely in order to escape pressure from the Indiana front seven. It appeared that Indiana was flustering the Penn State line with a variety of spin and stunt moves and by disguising their blitz packages well. There was more than one occasion when we watched Tegray Scales, a defensive stalwart in his own right, get the better of either Brandon Mahen, Steven Gonzalez or Will Fries. While Scales came away with three of the Hoosiers five sacks, he, and the rest of the Indiana front seven, caused constant pressure on McSorley by beating the Penn State offensive line in many ways.
The running game wasn’t explosive either in this one. Saquon Barkley carried the ball 20 times for just 56 yards on Saturday. That second least rushing yards Barkley has accumulated this season, ahead of just the Georgia State game. In that game, though, Barkley touched the ball just ten times out of the backfield, recording 47 yards, in a game that he spent much of the second half as a spectator. The 2.8 yards per carry Barkley recorded Saturday is nearly two full yards per carry lower than any other game this season.
Trace McSorley makes plays happen by extending the pocket and finding the open receiver. The Penn State skill position players are so talented that it’s difficult to cover them for more than a second or two. If McSorley has time, or can escape, he will pick you apart. But the offensive line needs to do a better job of keeping McSorley upright and protected more often as the season progresses. The hungry Michigan Wolverine front looms in the distance. You can bet they’re chomping at the bits to get a shot at McSorley to prove they’re the best team in the Big Ten. The offensive line will need steady and quick improvement if they want to keep McSorley safe against Michigan in a few weeks.
3. Christian Campbell and Co. Did An Excellent Job On IU’s Wide Receivers
I raved all week about how talented the Indiana receiving core was. I also credited them with being a nightmare for many teams because of their rare combination of size and speed along the edges. But for all the praise of gave the Hoosier receivers going into this matchup, I have to give a ton of credit to the Penn State secondary for blanketing them most of the day. The greatest praise has to go to senior cornerback Christian Campbell, who was entrusted to man up with 6’4″ wideout Simmie Cobbs for a majority of the afternoon. Campbell gave up about three inches to Cobbs, but used his veteran know-how and natural coverage ability to keep Cobbs quiet most of the afternoon. Cobbs finished the day with five catches for 44 yards and just one touchdown. The touchdown, however, was caught when Cobbs was being shaded by Amani Oruwariye, not Christian Campbell, who was out on the near end covering another receiver.
Oruwariye made up for getting beat to the inside by Cobbs on the third play of the second half, when he jumped in front of a Peyton Ramsey pass intended Taysir Mack and picked it off. The interception eventually was in vein, as Tyler Dais missed another field goal, this time from 21 yards out, but it was a defensive spark the team needed, as it helped propel them to hold Indiana off the scoreboard entirely in the second half.
In total, the Hoosier passing attack mustered just 175 yards, one touchdown and one interception between Ramsey and Richard Lagow. Outside of a busted coverage in which tight end Ian Thomas was able to pick up 54 on one catch, the Hoosier offense stalled mightily through the air all day. According to ESPN, to go along with the interception by Oruwariye, the Nittany Lion defense came up with five pass deflections, including three from defensive backs.
While the Indiana offense in its entirety isn’t the most prolific one the Nittany Lion defense will face this year, it certainly posed some of the more potentially dangerous mismatches, especially on the outside. The Penn State back four stepped up time after time in this one, and the lopsided score proved it.
4. Trace McSorley Hasn’t Been All That Strong
The stats tell one story. The eye test tells another one.
If you simply looked at a box score of this game, you’d note that McSorley was 23 of 36, a 64 percent completion percentage, for 315 yards and two touchdowns, along with one interception. On the year, he’s already well over 1000 yards passing and has found the endzone 12 times through the air and three times with his feet.
I also understand I jut mentioned how bad the offensive line has been, and that’s still true. It’s very difficult for McSorley to go through his progressions in their entirety when defensive linemen are breathing down his neck and flushing him out of the pocket.
But while McSorley’s stats are unwavering and his offensive line has struggled, here’s what’s concerning about Trace Mcsorley through five games this year: he’s often times not making the right reads. He’s pulling when he shouldn’t, he’s giving when the read says keep and go through his RPO reads. The Nittany Lions haven’t been abated offensively because of the immense talent of Saquon Barkley, but the reality is just that. Barkley and the other offensive skill position players have made up for the mistakes by Trace McSorley.
McSorley has thrown an interception in four of five games this season, and already has half the amount of interceptions in 2017 as he had in all of 2016. The balls that McSorley was completing a season ago, namely the deep ball, have been off the mark in 2017. The deep ball is difficult to lean on too often as Penn State did in 2016. Consistency doesn’t always translate from one season to the next on homerun plays through the air. So far, that’s exactly what’s happening for McSorley this year. In this game alone, there were multiple throws that McSorley outright missed a receiver downfield. He overthrew Juwan Johnson at the end of the third quarter against a defender that had lost a step to Johnson in the immediate coverage at the line of scrimmage.
McSorley will need to make better decisions in the RPO if he hopes to be successful in the coming weeks as the Nittany Lions look to keep their perfect season alive.
Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports