Here we are, two and a half weeks after the emotional, exhilarating, and downright exciting season ending game against Wisconsin, and VBR has yet to tackle the season that was. Starting today and continuing until we are out of positions, we are going to take a look at every spot on the field, examining the highs and lows of the season, and even take a peak into the crystal ball and the 2013 season. And then, as is a great internet custom, we’ll assign a grade. Today we start where, let’s be honest, it all starts. The offensive line.
It’s hardly a secret that the offensive line has been one of PSU’s achilles heels for the past….many seasons. You could point to any number of things, whether it be poor recruiting (we are looking at you, Antonio Logan-El), coaching (seriously, who has two seaparate coaches on the offensive line?) or one of the great PSU debates, the strength and conditioning program and the HIT philosophy of John Thomas. The simple fact of the matter is that it took a rare aligning of the planets (or just a lot of seniors) for the Lions to put together a respectable, if not dominant line they used to be known for.
With the hiring of Bill O’Brien, it’s not absurd to say that many of the biggest questions revolved around those issues, and by their very nature, the offensive line. Thomas was sent packing, and the certifiably insane Craig Fitzgerald came in. HIT was thrown out the door, literally, and a entirely new strength program was adopted. BOB also brought in what might have been one of the best “under the radar” hires of the off season in former Texas (among other places) offensive line coach Mac McWhorter. McWhorter had been retired following Texas’ 2010 season, but O’Brien was able to lure him back to the game and State College. The success of both of these moves was evident early on, and continued through the season.
PSU’s line was noticeably quicker off the ball, and much more physical. For much of the year, Matt McGloin had time to find the open man without fear of taking a big hit or sack. Even as the Lions struggled to find a running back to carry the load, the line was opening holes for whoever was in the backfield. The emergence of Zach Zwinak as a primary ball carrier and his straight ahead, downhill running, was the perfect fit for a line that was at it’s best knocking guys off the ball. Not only was Fitz’ training program paying dividends in strength, but the endurance was noticeable as well. The Penn State offense was at its best this year running at a high tempo, and getting as many snaps as possible. The big guys up front never showed any signs of fatigue as the pace increased.
As great as the season was for the O-Line, teams like Nebraska and Ohio State did expose a weakness that could be argued played a big role in PSU’s two Big 10 defeats. Ohio State was the most aggressive, and creative, with the blitz, and was able to get pressure on McGloin consistently, and stymie the rushing attack. It didn’t help matters that OSU boasted All-American, and likely first round pick Jonathan Hankins at tackle, and Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year John Simon on the end. Nebraska was similarly aggressive with the blitz, and while they surrendered points, they were also able to get to McGloin as well as anyone but the Buckeyes.
Moving into the 2013 season, PSU has to replace the likes of Matt Stankiewitch, Mike Farrell, but can call on the experience of emerging star tackle Donovan Smith, seniors-to-be Eric Shrive and John Urschel and Miles Dieffenbach, among others. A second off season with Coach Fitz, and a full spring, summer and fall camp with Coach McWhorter should only serve to improve the play in the trenches. And that, is good news for Penn State.
I’d love to give this unit an A, based on the rapid improvement in so many areas. But, blitz recognition and pick up was an issue, especially against the better teams on the schedule. Because of that, I’ll give the 2012 Nittany Lions offensive line a solid B+.
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