After a 2,000-yard, MVP season in 2012, Adrian Peterson gifted snowmobiles to his offensive line. Two years ago, Ezekiel Elliott — after capturing the league rushing crown as a rookie — gave his blockers John Deere UTVs. NFL running backs dropping thousands of dollars to take care of the big boys up-front is a common, casual gesture.
But aside from mentioning them at every turn during postgame interviews, how are college kids supposed to say thank you to their offensive linemen?
“I just like taking them out to eat. They love to eat. ... I sacrifice my stipend for them,” Miles Sanders said with a laugh after Penn State’s dominating 22-10 win over Wisconsin. “I’m definitely gonna try to take them out this week. They deserve it.”
Ryan Bates, Will Fries, Michal Menet, Connor McGovern and Steven Gonzalez earned their burgers from Otto’s Pub & Brewery on Saturday, sealing off and splitting open enough room on Wisconsin’s packed front. And Sanders took advantage.
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The Nittany Lions effectively out-Wisconsin’d the Badgers, as Sanders rushed for 159 yards and eclipsed 1,000 yards on the year. The junior tailback averaged 6.9 yards per rush, found the end zone for the ninth time this year and ripped off six runs of 11 yards or more. On a career-high 23 carries, Sanders was stopped behind the line of scrimmage once.
This, coming against a Wisconsin team that typically dictates the day. This, one week removed from a sorry showing at The Big House. Aside from shredding Illinois for 200 yards in September, Saturday was Sanders’ best performance in a Penn State uniform. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.
“We wanted to establish the run game,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said. “We wanted to prove that we could be a physical offense.”
Added Sanders: “I told them (the offensive line) earlier this week that we were going to run the ball today. That’s what we did.”
Sanders did more than tell them. He, along with Ricky Slade, Journey Brown and Johnathan Thomas, crashed an offensive line meeting, asked assistant coach Matt Limegrover if they could have the floor and expressed their support during a tumultuous stretch. Sanders managed only 14 yards on seven carries in Penn State’s 42-7 loss at Michigan. Against Indiana and Iowa, the former five-star recruit mustered a combined 134 yards on 32 carries. Between McSorley and Tommy Stevens, quarterbacks led the team in rushing the last three weeks.
But whatever Sanders said in his pep talk worked. The back and his blockers bossed the line of scrimmage.
Sanders, who rushed for 77 yards in the first half alone, accounted for 10 of Penn State’s 23 first downs and moved the sticks at least once on all five scoring drives. McSorley specifically pointed out the running game’s contributions on first down, helping the Nittany Lions get to third-and-reasonable. Sanders was responsible for 92 rushing yards on 12 first-down carries (7.7 yards per attempt).
Senior wideout DeAndre Thompkins said Sanders is “someone everyone can depend on off the field,” and he proved to be reliable on it. The running back was patient, overpowering and, most importantly, consistent. But he had some fun, too. Sanders made three Badgers miss on a 29-yard run — his longest of the day — and even hurdled Wisconsin defenders on two separate plays.
“I don’t think I’m going to hurdle anymore. The second one kind of hurt,” Sanders said smiling. “I was just feeling good out there.”
And he looked good, too. Not just in the running game, either. On third-and-5 at Wisconsin’s 43-yard line in the third quarter, Sanders caught a swing pass and burst upfield far enough to move the chains. Four plays later, Jake Pinegar connected on one of three field goals, giving the Nittany Lions a precious two-possession, 19-10 lead with four minutes to go until the fourth.
From that point on, the Pittsburgh native pushed Penn State to the finish line. The Nittany Lions ran 15 plays in the fourth quarter; eight of them were Sanders carries, including a 12-yard burst that gave him 1,000 yards for the season.
Sanders offered a wide grin when asked about hitting that mark; he admitted it was a preseason goal.
“I worked really hard last two years and the offseason before my first year, too. This is something I feel really good about,” Sanders said before a brief pause. “Big thanks to the O-line. It started with them.”
And it ends with a trip to Otto’s.