Every time Christian Hackenberg looked across the line of scrimmage on Saturday, seven — sometimes eight — defenders were eyeing him up, all wanting to get a piece of Penn State’s freshman quarterback.
Or whoever he handed the ball off to. Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton were suitable targets and Syracuse defenders didn’t miss, usually bringing each Nittany Lion running back down for little or no gain.
Zwinak sputtered to just 61 yards while Belton managed just 19. All-in-all, the Penn State (1-0) running game was successfully bottled up as it churned out just 57 yards on 38 carries. Both Zwinak and Belton ripped off 11-yard runs, but the big gains in the running game were few and far between.
Syracuse’s mission was a success — the Orange forced Hackenberg and the Nittany Lion receiving corps to beat them through the air. Penn State offensive linemen are expecting this to be a recurring strategy they’ll have to contend with as the season unfolds.
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Junior offensive tackle Garry Gilliam said he and his teammates are expecting to face stacked defensive fronts as teams gun for their young quarterback and try to limit Penn State’s run options like Syracuse did.
“From the first game, they didn’t blitz that much but who knows now week-to-week,” Gilliam said of Penn State’s upcoming opponent Eastern Michigan. “They might decide to throw a lot of blitzes at our freshman quarterback. But obviously a lot of teams are going to try and blitz us to mess with some of our schemes.”
A coach that always preaches the importance of being able to run the ball, Bill O’Brien said improving the running game is a priority.
“We’ve got to do a better job with the running game and we’re going to work hard on it this week and hopefully you’ll see some improvement this week against Eastern Michigan,” O’Brien said.
The Eagles (1-0) were the worst team against the run last season, giving up 267 yards per game.
O’Brien firmly stood behind the play of his offensive line, insisting the front five weren’t completely at fault for a lack of rushing yards against the Orange. That doesn’t mean mistakes weren’t made, however.
Early this week, O’Brien and offensive line coach Mac McWhorter spent time dissecting the Syracuse tape with the offensive linemen and pointed out a few slight mistakes, Gilliam said. First the team watched the game all the way through with O’Brien then McWhorter met with the offensive line to break down the good and bad.
“We go back through and kind of get more in-depth with Coach Mac,” Gilliam said. “He kind of goes through the technique stuff. I’m not sure how many plays we had but we went through each play about five to 10 times. Each guy kind of goes through the steps, what he did, what he did wrong.”
Faced with a steady stream of pressure, Penn State linemen kept the rookie Hackenberg upright for most of the game and opened holes for Zwinak and Belton throughout the afternoon at MetLife Stadium.
But as it happens when opposing defenses stack the box with linebackers and ask their defensive backs to cheat up to the line of scrimmage, those holes filled up quickly with Orange defenders. The Orange defense crowded the line and gobbled up Zwinak in short-yardage situations where Penn State went for zero or negative yards on four third-and-shorts.
Center Ty Howle relied on numbers to sum it up.
“Stats don’t tell the whole side of the running game,” Howle said. “A lot of times we’ve got five guys, six guys, seven guys, depending on what formation we’re in to block these guys and they’ve got more than us. It’s simple math. Sometimes it’s tough.”
Gilliam estimated Syracuse sent blitzers after the freshman quarterback 80 percent of the time on Saturday. They cashed in with two sacks and forced two hurried throws that resulted in interceptions. But for the most part, the offensive line held up despite working in two new starters — Gilliam at right tackle and Howle at center.
Howle, who played in 35 games over the last three seasons, made his first start at center while Gilliam, who played tight end last season, debuted at right tackle.
The stocky Howle stands 6-feet but weighs in at just under 300 pounds. As the shortest member of the offensive line, Howle has tried to model his playing style after other shorter centers who were able to turn what appeared to be a height disadvantage into a natural advantage.
O’Brien described Howle as a “nasty” player to line up against.
“Growing up, I’d always watch Jeff Saturday when he was playing for the Colts,” Howle said of the 6-foot-2 former All-Pro center. “And then also, when I was coming here and being recruited here, A.Q. Shipley. Two guys that are kind of like me. Shorter guys with natural leverage and two really, really good centers. Guys I kind of look up to and try to model my game after.”
The 6-foot-1 Shipley, who’s now with the Baltimore Ravens, is on the shorter side of the NFL center height spectrum. The average height of a starting center in the NFL is 6-foot-3 1/4.
At 6-foot-6, Gilliam had plenty of frame to pack on weight to augment his switch from tight end to tackle.
Both Howle and Gilliam, along with left tackle Donovan Smith, left guard Miles Dieffenbach and right guard John Urschel, used their size favorably against the Orange, O’Brien said, despite the lack of a running game. O’Brien blamed his play calls for the running game’s lack of push.
On those third-and-shorts, the Nittany Lions relied on runs up the middle, playcalls O’Brien theorized Syracuse knew were coming.
“First of all, the running game, the game plan starts with me. I thought the guys really blocked hard up front,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know why people think that the offensive line struggled. The offensive line, when the play was called properly and the right play was put into the game, the offensive line blocked really, really well.”