O-line needs to play to potential

Gone are the days when the offensive line was Penn State’s biggest weakness, but we are not yet to the point where we can call the line a major strength, either.

That was expected to be the case this season, and it hasn’t played out that way yet. The yet part is a key word because the season is just four games old, and it usually takes an O-line time to jell as the season unfolds.

Having sensational Saquon Barkley at running back has and will continue to cover up for some of the issues on the line. Having a great scrambling quarterback such as Trace McSorley does the same.

But as we’ve seen at times already this season, PSU’s offensive line can be overpowered, putting heavy pressure on McSorley up the middle and shutting down Barkley’s north-south running lanes.

The Nittany Lions have countered by getting Barkley loose on the outside, where he’s incredibly dangerous, or McSorley eluding initial pressure and extending plays with his legs.

Penn State can win a lot of games doing just that. But it also will be susceptible to losing a game or two against physical defensive fronts that have great athletes — namely Michigan and Ohio State.

Right tackle Andrew Nelson is a wonderful young man and great representative for the PSU program, and it’s terrific that he’s been able to come back from several injuries. But Nelson has not played well this season and appears to be a step slow or just out of rhythm, and unless he improves, it’s going to be hard to have him out on the field.

Right tackle Chasz Wright missed the game at Iowa, so Nelson and Will Fries handled that spot. Right guard Brendan Mahon missed the game against Georgia State, causing some lineup shuffling as Steven Gonzalez moved over from the left to right side, while Fries played left guard.

None of this is ideal. While it helps to have versatile linemen and depth — and PSU has come a long, long way in both regards — the best way for an O-line to improve is to have the same group playing together week after week.

Iowa exposed Penn State’s problems by pressuring McSorley (four sacks), but the Lions still gained nearly 600 yards and were balanced.

The next two opponents — Indiana and Northwestern — aren’t the kind of physical teams that will create big problems for the Lions, so these two games can be spent helping the O-line develop cohesion.

It had better, because with Michigan and Ohio State on the horizon, PSU cannot afford to still be underachieving up front.