Penn State football: Offensive line powers Lions’ rout of Boilermakers

tjohnson@centredaily.comNovember 16, 2013 

— Ty Howle loves pancakes in the afternoon.

He and his teammates along Penn State’s offensive line have been serving them — pancake blocks that is — consistently over the last three games. Saturday’s 45-21 manhandling of the Purdue Boilermakers featured a full menu that included 58 Penn State rushes to just 23 pass plays.

Nittany Lion offensive linemen pushed, ravaged and at times steamed right over Purdue’s defensive front at Beaver Stadium to continue Penn State’s impressive ground-and-pound strategy. For the third game, Penn State’s offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage. Penn State racked up 290 yards of it’s total 501 with its running game and used three touchdowns from Zach Zwinak and one each from Bill Belton and Christian Hackenberg to put the game away.

Hackenberg threw a touchdown pass to Adam Breneman in the second quarter and Sam Ficken added a 29-yard field goal for Penn State.

“I think those guys blocked well,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “Any time you rush for almost 300 yards somebody’s doing something right up front. I think those guys played a real good game.”

Their third one in a row, too. Penn State’s rushing efforts against Purdue brought its three-game rushing total to 729 yards. Purdue has just 654 over the whole season.

Zwinak pounded out 149 yards and averaged nearly six yards per carry. His three touchdowns tied a career high. Belton added another 81 and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch got his first extended action in weeks with nine carries for 44 yards.

Penn State offensive linemen said they knew the coaching staff would lean on the running game to hand Purdue it’s eighth-straight loss.

“Most of our play calls for most of the week were pretty much runs,” offensive tackle Garry Gilliam said. “Very physical practices and it was more because we got challenged. We like to step up and increase our running game and we stepped up to the challenge.”

The Nittany Lions (6-4, 3-3) were tasked with establishing the run right away and succeeded.

On four of Penn State’s six touchdown drives O’Brien opted for a run-heavy approach. Penn State showed its hand right off the bat.

O’Brien sent out his first offense with an extra piece as lineman Eric Shrive lined up to the left of Smith in an unbalanced look meant to provide more blocking steam. For most of the afternoon, Penn State wouldn’t even need it.

Interior pieces Howle, John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach mowed down Purdue linemen on inside runs. Tackles Gilliam, Adam Gress and Donovan Smith set edges and kicked their men out, providing plenty of room for Belton and Zwinak to scoot outside.

“Interior offensive linemen, that’s our bread and butter and we’re fortunate to be able to run the ball,” Howle said. “You walk back to the huddle and you’re talking to other offensive linemen, you’re like, ‘Hey man, how’d you do on that play?’ They’re like, ‘Good, good.’ You’re like, ‘Oh, I got a pancake.’”

Belton picked up 36 yards on eight carries and gave Penn State a 7-0 lead with a five-yard touchdown run on the opening drive. Zwinak followed on Penn State’s next possession, plodding ahead for 36 yards — Belton added eight — before ramming over the goal line to give Penn State a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.

Zwinak would handle most of the work from there but his job was made easier by wide open holes. For most of the afternoon, he was able to zip by or hop over Purdue linemen who had been pancaked to the ground before he was contacted. Penn State’s running game was particularly effective on first down.

The offensive line helped running backs pick up an average of five yards on first down. As a result, Penn State faced third-and-10 just once and third-and-seven situations just three times.

“Any time you can, in my opinion, physically dominate the line of scrimmage, it’s a good thing,” O’Brien said. “You go in there and you’re in manageable down and distances, especially in third downs. ... But most of our third downs were less than seven yards. That was good. Those are easier play calls.”

Purdue got on the board with a long drive that ended with Danny Etling completing a two-yard touchdown pass to Justin Sinz. Etling added a rushing touchdown on a bootleg and Raheem Mostert capped the Boilermakers’ scoring with a 100-yard kickoff return.

Other than that, the Boilermakers couldn’t get out of their own way. They couldn’t get in Penn State’s either.

Jordan Lucas intercepted Etling in the second quarter to set up a short Penn State drive capped by another Zwinak touchdown run from a yard out.

After Deion Barnes sacked Etling and forced a fumble that Austin Johnson recovered, Zwinak added a five-yard saunter up the middle untouched in the third quarter. Penn State’s offense took advantage of another turnover when Nyeem Wartman sacked Etling and jarred the ball loose again. Mike Hull recovered it and Hackenberg mirrored Etling’s bootleg score with one of his own from four yards out to cash in on the turnover.

“The ideal thing would be to get the other team stopped and give yourself a chance, but you can’t turn the ball over,” Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said. “It really came down to those two things, stopping them defensively and we had three turnovers.”

The Boilermakers also turned the ball over on downs.

Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.

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