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Walk The Line

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Horrid O-line play threatening to keep Lions home during bowl season

After the bowl-ban stemming from the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal was lifted earlier this year, Penn State fans were excited to see their team play again at the end of the regular season.

Now it might not be the sanctions that keep Penn State out of a bowl game; it could be their offensive line.

If you take away Bill Belton’s 92-yard touchdown run from his final stats today, the Nittany Lions’ senior running back went for only 45 yards on 15 carries, for an average of 3 yards and a cloud of dust an attempt. Besides that one run, Penn State only racked up 70 yards on 36 carries – an average of less than 2 yards a pop against a defense that came into the game ranked 101st in the country.

Perhaps worst of all, sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg was sacked five times, including two huge sacks in the fourth quarter that prevented Penn State from putting the game away.

Penn State entered Saturday’s game with the fifth-lowest red zone touchdown percentage in the FBS. They found themselves within the 20 on three occasions in Bloomington, and they could manage to net two field goals. On two of those drives, they had a first and goal twice. They ran the ball on five of those plays for a total of -2 yards. Hackenberg was sacked on the only designed passing call.

The O-line’s performance forced Hackenberg to make throws he did not want to all day. Hackenberg is a pocket passer, but the second year QB was forced to run all afternoon—a common occurrence this fall—either by design to buy him a few more seconds, or out of desperation. Indiana’s only points came on a pick-six that only happened because their defense knew the screen was coming. Penn State was not going to be able to run the ball on first down; after all, they haven’t all season. Indiana knew first-hand after stopping them for negative runs half a dozen times by that point in the game.

The Nittany Lions were able to use this to their advantage on the 92-yard draw play TD, as the linebackers went into coverage and the middle of the field was left wide open. But after that mistake, the Hoosiers did not give up any more big plays on the ground.

There has been very little continuity on the O-line this year, as injuries have devastated the squad ever since the spring. Senior guard and team captain Miles Dieffenbach made his first appearance all year today after having offseason knee surgery, so he might be a difference maker. But Penn State still needs to win at least one game to get into a bowl, and with their last two home games against teams with winning records—and road contest against a desperate Illinois team that will be playing for a bowl berth as well—they will need to run the ball and protect Hackenberg better than they have through nine games.

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