Miles Dieffenbach’s game-day wardrobe had consisted of blue shorts, grey polo shirts and the occasional pullover sweatshirt.
On Saturday, Dieffenbach donned a more utilitarian outfit. And when he emerged from Indiana’s Memorial Stadium tunnel in full football pads with his familiar No. 65 jersey on, it was an uplifting sight for the Penn State senior’s teammates.
“That was something that was very special to me because Miles is a guy I really look up to,” redshirt freshman Andrew Nelson said. “He’s taught me a lot about football and what it means to be a student athlete in college, so being able to actually play next to him during the season where in the beginning, we weren’t really sure if he’d be back, was an awesome experience.”
For Dieffenbach, it was the latest positive step in a remarkable recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) he suffered in March. He had been practicing for the last few weeks and decided he was ready after much consultation with team trainers and doctors.
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For his teammates, Dieffenbach’s return — if only for 10 plays against the Hoosiers — boosted a unit that was without starting left tackle Donovan Smith for a second straight game. As a result, Nelson started at left tackle with Brendan Mahon at left guard, Wendy Laurent at center, Brian Gaia at right guard and Angelo Mangiro at right tackle.
The offensive line has been a work in progress all season and head coach James Franklin said Penn State will continue to evaluate how different linemen play together. With Dieffenbach available, the coaching staff got a look at a few different combinations of personnel on Saturday.
Derek Dowrey also worked his way into the lineup and provided some depth and flexibility for Herb Hand’s offensive line. Dieffenbach played both left and right guard spots and got his first look on the right side in a jumbo formation that featured six offensive linemen.
Then, Dowrey checked in at left guard and Mahon moved to the right side to Mangiro’s right. Penn State used a similar look on the goal line in the first half.
“Derek’s done some nice things all year long, and it has to do with that,” Franklin said. “But it also has to do with just fact we are trying to find the right formula of those five guys in there. And the problem is every time you think you’ve got the formula worked out, you lose a guy. And again, it’s not just losing one guy in a situation that we’re in, it’s three guys move for every one injury. So those things are part of it.”
Dieffenbach always was a part of Penn State’s preparation even if he couldn’t play. He said he took a more active role mentoring his young teammates in the film room and on the sideline.
Now he’s hoping his role will expand when Penn State plays Temple on Saturday.
“My knee felt great after the game,” Dieffenbach said. “It felt great during the game so we have terrific trainers and medical staff that helped me progress to this point and yeah, the confidence is building every day and it’s getting back to practice and playing well and feels great.”
No huddle always an option
Penn State’s offense has operated without a huddle occasionally this season — including on a few back-to-back sets of plays against Indiana — and will continue to do so.
Maybe offensive coordinator John Donovan will opt to open a drive with it? Maybe he’ll speed it up midway through? It’ll likely happen when an opponent is not expecting it. That’s by design.
“That’s really kind of how we want it to be. We want it to be sporadic,” Franklin said. “I think if you do one thing all the time people get used to that. So our philosophy really over the last seven or eight years has been we want to be multiple formation. We want to be multiple tempo, we want to be multiple personnel groups, and we want to do those personnel groups and formations out of nontraditional sets.”
It’s not entirely different from the former coaching staff’s approach. Bill O’Brien also used multiple tempos but usually stuck with no-huddle looks — dubbed the NASCAR offense — for extended possessions rather than mix tempos on the same drives.
For Franklin and Donovan, keeping the Penn State defense fresh is also part of the equation. Penn State is averaging 3:20 more possession time per game than its opponents with occasional use of the hurry-up offense.
“We want to keep the defensive coordinator uncomfortable and on his heels because he can’t ever get used to what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Franklin said.
Just boot it
At the start of the season, Penn State’s focus on its punt teams was to pin opposing returners to one side of the field.
But that directional punting game gave freshman punters Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello trouble. The ball had a tendency to come off the sides of their feet and travel short distances which contributed to a punting game ranked last among FBS teams. But since Penn State coaches scrapped the old scheme and instructed their punters to focus purely on distance, the Nittany Lions have been more consistent with their punts.
Pasquariello has improved his average over the last three games and pinned Indiana inside its own 20-yard line five times on Saturday.
While he averaged 37.3 yards per punt, Pasquariello was much more consistent — a trait Franklin prefers to outright power. Save for an early 29-yarder, every one of Pasquariello’s punts was at least 32 yards with a 48- and 44-yarder and two 39-yarders.
It’s helped that the Nittany Lions have protected Pasquariello better, too. He’s had more time to focus on his fundamentals without rushers in his immediate vicinity and coaches have been comfortable with gunners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell being able to cover punts down the field, making their decision to punt purely for distance much easier.
“Our philosophy is you don’t kick it right down the middle of the field because those guys that are returning it are special players and you’re putting everybody else in tough spots,” Franklin said. “But right now where we’re at from an experience standpoint at the punter position, let’s put the pressure on everybody else and allow that guy to go whack it. So I think that’s helped.”
Box score corrections
Changes were made to the official box score from the Indiana game.
Originally, Nyeem Wartman and Mike Hull were both listed with seven tackles apiece. Hull was actually credited with nine tackles and Wartman with eight in the corrected version.
Meanwhile, tackle totals for C.J. Olaniyan, Jordan Lucas, Adrian Amos and Tyrone Smith were altered while Troy Apke and Carl Nassib were each credited with a tackle each that had been missed by the official scorekeepers. Olaniyan and Amos were each awarded a tackle pushing their game totals to seven and four, respectively. Lucas’ tackle total was changed from six to five while Smith’s total was reduced from three to one. Nassib’s tackle was credited as a tackle for loss.