It’s been a recurring theme this season, testing the depth of a program still trying to build itself back up.
The injury bug bit the Penn State football team again Saturday night at Beaver Stadium, and it was up to the offensive line to adapt during its 41-14 win over Iowa.
The Nittany Lions drove down the field quickly and efficiently for a touchdown on their opening drive, but lost in the euphoria of that success was seeing right tackle Brendan Mahon leave the field. The redshirt junior was taken to the locker room on a cart and never returned to the game.
The remaining offensive linemen dealt with the loss almost seamlessly.
“Obviously, we’re more physical,” guard Ryan Bates said. “That was plain and simple. Our offensive line, we ran the ball down their throat and we were more physical than them up front.”
The loss follows Andrew Nelson being lost, likely for the season, during the win over Maryland a month ago.
The offense did quite nicely, rolling up 599 yards of total offense. The play-calling also did well to cover up the inadequacies.
Quarterback Trace McSorely had a variety of roll-outs, sweeps, draw plays and read options to keep the Hawkeyes guessing whether he, Saquon Barkley or anyone else would be running the ball. And that run game in turn set up the pass, weakening the push of the Hawkeye defensive front.
“Through our running game, I think we were confident in what we could do running the ball,” McSorely said. “We were able to find a couple things, get good ‘chunk’ plays, you know, five, six yards a pop every time. We were able to keep going back to those when we needed to get into manageable third downs.”
The front line helped Barkley roll up yet another spectacular game. He finished with 167 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown, and they rushed for 359 yards as a team.
“We were physical today on both sides of the ball,” Barkley said. “The O-line really set the tone and the D-line set the tone. It all starts with those guys. I tell them before every game, I go where you take me, this offense goes where you take us.”
The adaptations included putting Chasz Wright at right tackle.
McSorely was sacked just one in the game, when Wright let Iowa defensive end Matt Nelson fly right by and take a clean shot on the quarterback.
“He had one play I know he’d like to have back,” coach James Franklin said. “Besides that I thought he really played well.”
With Wright filling in at right tackle, and Paris Palmer taking over for Nelson at left tackle, the Nittany Lions showed decent depth they had not seen in several seasons.
“I’m really proud of Chasz,” Franklin said. “He’s waited for his opportunity and worked hard. When the opportunities come, he and Paris have stepped up big time for us. Losing Nelly and then losing Mahon, those two guys have come in. We would never have been able to do that a year ago or two years ago.”
Franklin did not go into any details about Mahon’s status. After the game, Bates described talking with Mahon on the sideline and his concern for the man who lines up next to him, “I told him that I love him.”
While Bates could not give any future status for Mahon, he made it seem it could be more than just Saturday’s game.
“Missing Brendan’s going to be a big loss to the offensive line,” Bates said. “He’s a phenomenal player. … Playing next to him, he’s a great resource to have on my side. If I had a question, I’d ask him and he’d tell me the answer.”
Franklin also said he had conversations on the sideline with the staff about what scenarios would lead them to bring in freshman Will Fries, burning his redshirt season. A play or two is not worth it, but it’s now something on the table for the team. Regardless, the five men up front did quite well against an Iowa program known for years as a physical team in the trenches.
“We take pride, offensive linemen, in the run game,” Bates said. “Once Saquon gets 200-yard games, when he gets his big runs, it puts a smile on my face and the rest of the offensive linemen.”