STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — What Penn State already has won with its berth in the Pinstripe Bowl is more practice time.
Offensive linemen gaining additional experience is vital for the program, coach James Franklin said.
Miles Dieffenbach was the only senior starter on the offensive line; he played in four games and started only two after recovering from knee surgery in March. There was one junior starter, and three other redshirts — either freshmen or sophomores — with no previous experience.
Penn State averaged just 103.6 yards rushing per game, converted only 38 percent of its third-down conversion attempts and allowed 42 sacks against quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
The Nittany Lions (6-6) won their first four games but lost six of their last eight. And while many Penn Statefans voiced online disapproval at the apparent lack of improvement throughout the season, players on the line disagreed.
“I think it’s completely different from the beginning of the season to the end of the season,” said tackle Andrew Nelson, a redshirt freshman. “People may not think that because they saw wins (at the beginning of the season), but offensive line wise we progressed a long way through the season.”
Penn State was held to less than 100 yards rushing in seven of its 12 games. The Lions ran for 626 yards in their final four.
“All those reps from the previous games were so valuable to us coming together and finishing out strong on the offensive line,” Nelson said.
Dieffenbach will depart but likes the development he’s seen.
“From day one to now it’s night and day,” he said. “A lot better execution, guys getting hats on hats. You have to watch film, you have to prepare for it, but there’s nothing like live rounds when you’re out there on the battlefield going at it. Those are precious reps.”
Dieffenbach, Nelson, Angelo Mangiro, Brian Gaia and Donovan Smith are the likely starters against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Players redshirting such as Chasz Wright, Chance Sorrell, Noah Beh and Brandon Brosnan also are getting extra work during the 15 allowable bowl-game practice sessions.
“It’s even the meeting time,” Franklin said. “A lot of times those guys were in scout meetings trying to learn how to run the opposing offense or opposing defense. And now they’re in those meeting sessions as well.”
Offensive coordinator John Donovan said the development process is not only lengthy, it’s challenging.
“It’s such a different game up front,” he said. “Especially for an offensive lineman. It’s like calculus to those guys.”
He described various defensive schemes as intricate.
“So not only do you need to be smart and be able to think fast, you need to be strong enough and big enough to handle the one on one matchups,” Donovan said.
“But they’re just going to get better. That’s the bottom line.”
Running back Akeel Lynch ran behind that line for 603 yards this season, including 366 over the final four games. He said blame for lack of consistency can be spread around.
“Because there are plays where the O-Line gets it right and we mess up and some plays everyone else gets it right and one person messes up, so it’s key for everyone to get on the same page at the same time,” Lynch said.
“We keep making strides each and every day and eventually we’ll be where we want to be.”
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