Penn State right tackle Andrew Nelson said he heard the criticism of the offensive line.
The unit proved to be a weakness in the first three games for the Nittany Lions. They didn’t open many holes for the running backs and allowed quarterback Christian Hackenberg to take his share of hits. But against Massachusetts on Saturday, the line contributed to a dominant rushing attack that powered the Nittany Lions to a 48-7 victory at Beaver Stadium.
The Nittany Lions overcame their one-dimensional offense to win all three games. But Nelson felt a little better after Penn State’s thrashing of Massachusetts.
“It also feels good to dominate, which I think we did today,” Nelson said.
Penn State (4-0) rushed for more yards Saturday against Massachusetts (0-4) than it had in its first three games combined. The Nittany Lions piled up 228 yards on 45 carries Saturday. Penn State picked up 227 yards on 92 carries in the first three weeks as the inexperienced line struggled.
Penn State coach James Franklin said the running game still has a long way to go, but acknowledged the offensive line showed progess.
Derek Dowrey also made his first start at right guard in place of Brian Gaia, who started the first three games.
“I’m not going to get into the specifics of why he played today and Gaia didn’t,” Franklin said. “But again that’s a guy who’s been working all year long, had an opportunity to go today and really did a good job.
“I think you’ll see Gaia back next week. It was no problem, it was no issues off the field, it wasn’t like he was suspended or anything like that. We felt like Dowrey gave us the best chance to win this week.”
With Dowrey on the line, Penn State dominated the Minutemen.
“Today we were able to be a little bit more physical and coordinate it up front, get those guys started, and it gives them an opportunity to be successful,” Franklin said.
Franklin added that the running backs were patient enough to take advantage of the holes created. Akeel Lynch rushed for a team-high 81 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. Bill Belton accounted for 76 yards and two scores, and Zach Zwinak ran for 28 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries.
Penn State averaged 5.1 yards per carry, more than double its average of 2.5 going into the game Saturday.
Nelson said the coaching staff stressed the importance of establishing the running game throughout the week. He said offensive line coach Herb Hand often talks about the running game coming down to his players’ imposing their will on their opponent.
That starts with the offensive line.
“Obviously I think the line played better than we usually did,” Nelson said. “But it takes the entire offense to do well, but all practice long we had been stressing the run game and stuff like that, throwing the ball when we had to throw it, but I think all week in practice coach Hand was just really stressing that we were going to get better this week and I think we did.”
Nelson said it simply came down to execution.
Belton noticed a difference when taking handoffs in the backfield.
Rather than being greeted by defenders at the line of scrimmage, he saw “green grass.”
“They were moving guys up front and like I said, they’re continuing to get better each week,” Belton said.
Lynch saw holes open on a toss to the right that ended in a 46-yard gain.
He credited the tight ends and guards for the success of the toss plays.
And he refused to blame the offensive line for the issues in the running game to start the season.
“The problems and concerns about the running game, we as the running backs take it on our shoulders,” Lynch said. “We don’t put it on the O-line. There’s plays out there that we’re also missing as well, so we said, you know what, let’s do our jobs. And as we continue to do our jobs, we can get on the O-line and they see us running hard and that makes them maybe block harder for us.”
The offensive line was eager to put together a strong performance Saturday.
And Nelson believes the unit has the potential to execute like it did against UMass each week.
“I think that obviously we’re a young line,” Nelson said. “We’re not that experienced, but I think that we can be just as good as any O-line in the country.”