Lions not tough in run game
Saquon Barkley is awesome. The best running back in Penn State history. So how on earth has the program gotten to the point where it cannot run the ball effectively in clutch situations?
The great Bill Murray line from the classic comedy “Stripes” is appropriate: “There’s something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us.”
There is something very, very wrong with PSU’s overall ground game. And for all the wonderful strides the program has made, it is a problem that must be pinpointed, addressed and solved for the Nittany Lions to remain a national power and take the next step to superpower.
First, a pause. Penn State just suffered a brutal loss — 39-38 at Ohio State in the final minutes — so everyone is still kind of in overreaction mode. That’s the nature of football fans.
There was plenty of blame to go around, coach James Franklin said. And he’s 100 percent correct.
The offensive line had an awful night.
Joe Moorhead’s playcalling was far below his usual stellar standard.
The defense, which we thought was really good, got shredded, and Brent Pry didn’t seem to make any adjustments.
Let’s remember that Ohio State is very good, has a plethora of outstanding players and was at home.
So, in the grand scheme of things, a 39-38 loss, no matter how it played out, isn’t the end of the world.
It’s also not, in my opinion, the end of PSU’s hopes for a College Football Playoff berth. There’s a lot of football still to be played, and at the very least, the Lions will remain in the discussion as long as they win out.
OK, now back to the running game issues.
Barkley might still be the Heisman Trophy frontrunner, but it’s not because he’s having a great season running the ball. He ranks just 23rd in the country in rushing yards with 801 through eight games, and he’s been held under 100 yards in five of those contests.
Barkley had a 36-yard TD run Saturday night. On his other 20 carries, he had a measly 8 yards.
PSU numbers guru beat writer Mike Poorman of StateCollege.com did this outstanding research Sunday: Barkley has 76 carries for 297 yards over the past 17 quarters, but 158 of those yards came on three carries (69, 53 and 36). On his other 73 carries, Barkley has run for — are you ready for this? — just 139 yards.
How is that possible?
There are two easy answers:
1. PSU’s offensive line isn’t very good, and it has dealt with injuries.
2. Opposing teams are loading up to stop Barkley at all costs.
Those are legitimate reasons, not excuses.
But there’s just no way, given Barkley’s immense talent, that those are the only two problems.
My theory is this: The PSU program has a serious identity crisis with what it wants to be as a running team.
Penn State has a fantastic offense capable of putting up huge numbers. But it does not rely on sheer brute force up front to do it.
The linemen don’t blow defenders off the ball. Ever.
The offense excels because there’s a sensational running back who can turn nothing into something, because there’s an intelligent, mobile quarterback who can extend plays, and because there are a bunch of weapons at the skill positions.
Moorhead has plenty of plays at his disposal in the playbook to take advantage of all of those things to score a bunch of points. And that’s enough for the Lions to beat most teams.
But when Penn State absolutely must get some tough yards on the ground to extend a series or eat up clock against a strong defense, there have been far too many examples in recent years where the line got blown up and the play stood no chance.
Let me be the first to admit that I have no clue what an offensive lineman does, and neither do 99.9 percent of football fans because they never played the position and cannot possibly understand all the ins and outs of 320-pound men crashing into each other on every play.
But there has long been a theory in football that was frequently used to describe offensive lines in front of Dan Marino and Peyton Manning during their careers: If the quarterback is so good and the linemen are primarily responsible for pass protection, the offense essentially becomes a finesse offense, and linemen aren’t developed into being nasty, physical, dominant forces in the running game.
Moorhead’s offense is designed to check the defensive alignment, get into the right play call, have the quarterback read his keys and decide if it will be a run or pass. By its very nature, it’s an offense designed to sort of look for loopholes and cash in on them, as opposed to simply lining up and imposing your will on the defense.
Again, that can pay big dividends against most teams, and I’m not advocating for an overhaul of a highly effective scheme that can lead PSU to 10-11 wins per season.
But if the Lions are going to beat Ohio State consistently, or if they’re ever going to beat Alabama in a playoff game, they can’t just rely on special teams touchdowns, trick and busted plays or other unusual circumstances.
They’re going to have to get tougher up front and develop a program-wide commitment that they’re going to dominate the line of scrimmage, like Wisconsin and Ohio State generally do.
Or else maybe use a fullback.
Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.