Penn State football: Offensive linemen encouraged by performance, looking to continue progress against Northwestern

Penn State's Angelo Mangiro, left, and Brendan Mahon protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg against Akron on Sept. 6 at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lion offensive line is hoping for continued improvement on Saturday against Northwestern, as Penn State is coming off a 288-yard, five-touchdown performance against UMass.
Penn State's Angelo Mangiro, left, and Brendan Mahon protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg against Akron on Sept. 6 at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lion offensive line is hoping for continued improvement on Saturday against Northwestern, as Penn State is coming off a 288-yard, five-touchdown performance against UMass. CDT file photo

Herb Hand’s thumbs were busy on Sunday afternoon.

But Hand wasn’t as busy as his offensive linemen were on Saturday, when Penn State’s front five and their respective backups spent the afternoon mauling the Massachusetts Minutemen.

Hand, Penn State’s offensive line coach, took to Twitter where he tweeted multiple clips of his players bulldozing, shoving and cutting down Massachusetts defenders consistently in Penn State’s 48-7 win. They’re still learning to play together, however. Right tackle Andrew Nelson said this fact alone is plenty encouraging.

“That’s probably the most exciting part about where we’re at right now is the fact that we’re 4-0 even while at times playing not executing well and playing very sloppy,” Nelson said. “So knowing the fact that we have a lot of room to improve and we’re at the spot that we’re at is really exciting knowing that this is definitely not the best we have.”

But Saturday’s performance was undoubtedly their best. The evidence was forceful and violent — traits Hand expects from his players in order for Penn State to be able to run the ball effectively as it did in its 228-yard, five-touchdown effort.

“Coach Hand always talks about imposing your will on someone else,” Nelson said. “He always talks about trying to be the nastiest guy out there on the offensive line. So I think a lot of it is trying to have that mindset, that you’re going to go out and dominate the person across from you.”

Mission accomplished. Take Bill Belton’s 20-yard touchdown run in the second quarter for example.

Belton got into the open field thanks to left tackle Donovan Smith and left guard Brendan Mahon, who sealed off the edge to spring the shifty tailback. Smith continued on and plowed through safety Joey Colton to make Belton’s run easier. Belton had more room to run — and one less defender to elude — thanks to center Angelo Mangiro, who roughed up a defensive tackle, then made his way into the second level to cut linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox, eliminating him from the play.

Mangiro particularly was a force.

He showed off his athleticism making a nice turnaround block to neutralize John Robinson-Woodgett’s backside pursuit of Akeel Lynch in the first quarter. The block enabled Lynch to gallop 46 yards.

Later, Mangiro ran Daniel Maynes off the line of scrimmage and into the grass on Zach Zwinak’s five-yard, second-quarter touchdown run. Nelson threw a perfect cut block on Sha-Ki Holines on the play while right guard Derek Dowrey bulled through Santos-Knox and Mahon occupied linebacker Stanley Andre in the second level to open up a lane to the goal line.

Mangiro was named the team’s offensive player of the game by the coaching staff.

“I think we’re jelling. I think we’re a confident group and we’re confident in each other,” Mangiro said. “We’re just looking to get better each week and I think that’s something we’re doing.”

So far, Mangiro and his teammates have had to learn on the fly.

Smith was the lone member of the line with starting experience while Dowrey, Mahon and Nelson had never played an offensive snap at this level before the season started. Dowrey, along with guard Brian Gaia, who started the first three games, played defense last season. Injuries kept Penn State from practicing the same five linemen together consistently through spring ball and preseason practice.

Mangiro, who played all three interior spots last season as Penn State’s top reserve, didn’t play center until he arrived at Penn State before the 2011 season. He was mostly a tackle and guard at Roxbury High School in New Jersey.

“I got pretty comfortable with it pretty quickly,” Mangiro said. “The biggest difference between center and guard is the amount of space between you and the defender. Most of the time at center, the defender is on you so it makes it a little more difficult in run blocking and things like that and you use different techniques for run and pass and at guard, there’s a little more space, you have to set differently, according to (the defender).”

Penn State’s previous two offensive line coaches — Dick Anderson and Mac McWhorter — both worked linemen at different positions in case they needed to shift around. As a result, Nelson has gotten work at both tackle spots and said he could play left tackle if called on.

Smith was shaken up on a play in the first half of Saturday’s game but re-entered and didn’t miss a beat. Or a block.

Still, if Smith needs to be spelled for a long period, Nelson is confident he could play the left side in place of Penn State’s most experienced lineman. It’s one of the more harrowing jobs on the team — protecting quarterback Christian Hackenberg’s blindside.

“I’ve definitely gotten my fair share of reps at left tackle,” Nelson said.

Meanwhile, reserves Albert Hall, Evan Galimberti, Wendy Laurent and Andrew Terlingo also got some experience with the game in hand.

“We have guys that can come in and help contribute to the team,” Mangiro said. “I was really happy for those young guys to get in the game Saturday. They work extremely hard. They work just as hard as the starters do.”

Nelson was quick to point out the work won’t stop.

Northwestern (1-2) is next and although the Wildcats are surrendering about 140 rushing yards per game, Nelson, Mangiro and their teammates expect their jobs will get tougher as they get into the meat of conference play.

“We definitely have to prove ourselves against every team we play,” Nelson said. “We’re definitely not going to take the attitude, ‘Hey, listen, we dominated up front against UMass so we’ve kind of figured this thing out.’ We’re going to go into every game thinking, ‘Listen, these guys are going to be the best up front that we’ve played and we have to dominate them.’ We definitely don’t think we have it all figured out and we definitely think we have a lot of room for improvement.”

Della Valle hoping

patience pays off

Jesse Della Valle has a few options when the football is hanging up in the air.

His favorite option — to catch the ball and take off up the field — as Penn State’s chosen punt returner is one that has mostly eluded him one-third of the way through the season. Della Valle has returned four punts for 20 yards. Penn State has just six punt returns total so far. Della Valle has called for nine fair catches.

“I haven’t been able to return quite as many punts as I would have liked,” Della Valle said. “But at the same time I don’t want to put the team in a position where I’m fielding punts that I shouldn’t or I’m trying to return punts that I shouldn’t be, so been fair-catching a lot of balls.

“For me to catch every ball and try to return every ball is not a smart decision for the football team.”

While Della Valle has been far from a gamebreaker lined up deep, he has been solid in not taking chances. He hasn’t made bad fair catch calls deep inside his own territory and he hasn’t muffed a punt.

For coach James Franklin, that’s the most important stat line, although Franklin wants to see more returns and more yardage out of his returners. Greg Garrity and Jordan Lucas also have been used as punt returners, each with one return, and Franklin said the team is still practicing multiple players back there.

“He’s been really successful in catching the ball and making great decisions, but we would lake a little bit more play-making. If that comes from him, great,” Franklin said. “But I’m not going to give up the consistency of catching the ball for the play-making at this point.”