Brendan Mahon readjusted his Fiesta Bowl champions hat, picked his head up and saw a couple reporters waiting to ask him about the offensive line’s superb — and somewhat surprising — showing.
“Can I start this with I told you so?” Mahon said grinning.
Most doubted that Penn State’s maligned front could bully Washington’s top-ranked rush defense on Saturday, but the senior guard didn’t hold any grudges and wasn’t overly bitter with the skeptics.
He was just happy in the moment — and excited for what lies ahead.
“The biggest thing is looking to the future for the guys next to me that I played with this season,” Mahon said. “They’re all returning next year. I’m so happy to kind of get the ball rolling with them.”
James Franklin and his players talked at length in the Fiesta Bowl buildup that postseason play determines quite a bit heading into the following season. It sets the tone, positively or negatively.
In that vain, Penn State’s offensive linemen couldn’t have done more to put themselves in prime position for a breakout 2018 campaign. The Nittany Lions racked up 203 rushing yards on a team that allowed only 92.3 yards on the ground per game; Penn State’s left side of the line opened the hole for a Saquon Barkley run that matched that per-game total.
Mahon is now gone; so is oft-injured leader Andrew Nelson.
But Ryan Bates, Connor McGovern, Will Fries, Steven Gonzalez and Chasz Wright — who combined for 52 starts in 2017 — will be back in 2018. So will highly-touted backups Michal Menet, Mike Miranda and CJ Thorpe, ready to compete for Mahon’s empty spot.
The cupboard is full for Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover — and his players’ attitude in Arizona gives him plenty of confidence moving forward.
“When we got here, there was a great focus,” Limegrover said. “One thing I asked them to do was be present. If you’re at a bowl event, enjoy it and be present. If you’re out with the guys in Phoenix, enjoy it and be present. If you’re at practice or in the meetings, enjoy it and be present. I think they did a phenomenal job of that, and I think it showed. I think we were well-prepared, and I give them all the credit.”
Barkley and Trace McSorley, who was sacked just once, also gave the linemen props. The former rushed for 137 yards in his Penn State encore, and the latter completed 12 of 12 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns on third down thanks to a clean pocket all night.
Both were encouraging sights after the line struggled throughout the regular season. Penn State averaged just 76 rushing yards per contest in a five-game window against Ohio State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Indiana and Rutgers, while allowing 17 sacks in the same span.
But the Fiesta Bowl was a culmination of gradual offensive line improvement. Penn State’s big boys manhandled Nebraska and Maryland — as expected — to end the regular season and did the same to a Washington defense that features future first-round pick and defensive tackle Vita Vea.
“It makes me proud. It makes all of us proud,” Bates said. “Every time Trace and Saquon go out there and have big games, it’s us who are protecting, who put our hands in the dirt, who bulldoze the D-line over. They were the No. 1 rushing defense in the country, and we had over 500 total yards on them. The sky’s the limit with this offense. We do what we do, and we did what we did.”
Added Franklin: “We’re still fairly young up front, and they just got better as the season goes on. That’s something I take a lot of pride in as a head football coach.”
The offensive line, noticeably hampered by NCAA scholarship limitations just a few years ago, has long been Penn State’s Achilles’ heel.
But it looks as if this unit — led by Bates, Fries and McGovern — is finally ready to take the next step.
Mahon won’t be around to witness the line fully blossom, but the senior is happy to know he played a role in it all. A nine-game freshman starter in 2014 — a year in which Christian Hackenberg was sacked 44 times — Mahon saw the offensive line at its lowest point.
But he believes after a strong finish to the 2017 season, capped by a dominating Fiesta Bowl, Penn State’s offensive line is set to become a strength in 2018.
“I’m just looking forward to seeing these guys’ futures,” Mahon said. “They work really hard, and that’s their mentality is working hard, finishing and playing to the whistle. As we continue — well, when they continue going on, it’s really going to help them going into next season.”