O-Line Not Bent Out of Shape

Dieffenbach and company confident Penn State's offensive line play will improve after some early struggles in 2013.

Penn State's offensive linemen emerged as the unlikely stars of ESPN's “Training Days,” three of the grunts having been accorded extensive airtime on the preseason program.

There was a segment about John Urschel, the math whiz who plays right guard. A segment about Miles Dieffenbach, the funnyman who mans the other guard. And a segment about Garry Gilliam, the tight end-turned-tackle who has overcome personal obstacles and injuries to emerge as a contributor.

But now the line is being accorded a different sort of attention, even though the Nittany Lions are 2-0 heading into Saturday's game against Central Florida, a 6 p.m. start in Beaver Stadium.

There was the matter of the anemic running game in the opener against Syracuse (38 carries, 57 yards). And while PSU did pile up 251 yards on the ground in last Saturday's 45-7 victory over Eastern Michigan, it's also worth noting that EMU yielded 202 rushing yards to Howard in its opener. Yes, Howard.

Translation: The Lions were not exactly facing the '85 Chicago Bears.

Further translation: It would probably be premature to say the running game is fully repaired.

As for the pass blocking, the Lions have allowed seven sacks through two games, putting them on pace for 42 this season, exactly double their 2012 total.

Then there's the most galling statistic of all, one that reflects poorly on the entire offense: The Lions have converted just two of 26 third downs to date -- a 7.7-percent success rate that is worst among the nation's 123 FBS teams, and a shortcoming not even remotely offset by the fact that PSU is 4-for-4 on fourth down.

Asked about the O-line during his weekly conference call Tuesday, coach Bill O'Brien called the play of that unit “decent” and said that while “certain individuals” have excelled, across-the-board improvement is needed.

“I don't want to get into the specifics,” he said, “but I think that overall we need to play more consistent up front. I've talked to these guys about that. Mac (McWhorter, the position coach) feels the same way.”

As does Dieffenbach. When asked in particular about the sacks he said, “We can definitely play better up front.”

Again, O'Brien said, “I don't think we've played poorly, but I know we can play better. I think the guys understand that. We hold our offensive line to a very high standard here at Penn State, and you know those guys know they can play better, and we expect them to.”

The line features two new starters -- Gilliam at right tackle and Ty Howle at center -- joining Urschel, Dieffenbach and fellow holdover Donovan Smith, the left tackle. There is also a freshman quarterback, Christian Hackenberg. While he has been impressive to date, he hasn't been perfect. Penn State's opponents have crowded the line of scrimmage, tried to take away the run and challenged the rookie to beat them. They have also blitzed PSU “pretty heavy,” as Dieffenbach said.

That has led to the aforementioned issues, all of which are tied together.

“We've got to get off to a better start on first down,” O'Brien said, noting that there have been “too many” negative plays at that point.

“So now you're in second-and-long, and you're already off schedule,” he said. “It's not a good thing.”

And on third down, he added, the execution has simply not been up to par.

“I thought on Saturday there were plays to be made there,” he said. “Whether it was a protection breakdown or a poor throw or whatever it was, we just didn't make the play.”

He noted during Tuesday's Big Ten conference call that of Eastern Michigan's four sacks, only one was the result of a line breakdown. Another occurred because a running back failed to pick up a blitzer, the other two because of miscommunications between Hackenberg and his receivers.

So everybody needs to get better, not just the line.

On “Training Days” the blockers reveal themselves to be an unusually close group, as indeed they must be. They are shown eating together and clowning together, with Dieffenbach at the very center of that.

He spoke Tuesday about the “delicate balance” of knowing when to kid around, and when not to.

“It's something you learn through trial and error,” he said, “and hopefully less error.”

For all his light-heartedness, he is also something of a tough guy. During the EMU game he rose from a pile after one first-half play, and heard a game official telling him he would have to leave the field. Dieffenbach had no idea why, until he looked down and saw one of his fingers bent at a gruesome angle, the result of a dislocation.

He went to the sideline, somebody popped the digit back in place and he returned to action after missing a single play.

There are parts of the offense that aren't looking all that great right now, either. Especially on third down.

“It will get better,” O'Brien said. “I can't guarantee it. I'm not into guarantees, but I do believe we're working on it, and … in my opinion, it will improve. It needs to. There's no question about it. It has to improve.”

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