Red Flag In Penn State’s Blue-White Game?

A familiar problem surfaced once again in the NIttany Lions’ spring scrimmage.

Penn State defensive end Evan Schwan was credited with two sacks in Saturday's Blue-White Game, and reacted as might be expected.

“I'm on Cloud Nine,” he said.

Everyone else, not so much.

Schwan was part of a White team consisting of reserves, a team that had five sacks against the Blue offense -- i.e., the first-stringers.

Never mind that the quarterbacks weren't actually hit. And never mind that the Blue won the game 17-7. The offensive line's performance raised a considerable red flag, in that it evoked memories of that unit's struggles last fall, when the Nittany Lions went 7-6.

Asked for his assessment of the line, offensive coordinator John Donovan said there was “some good, some bad.”

“A lot like any other practice,” he added, “but some good experience, that's for sure.”

“Obviously,” head coach James Franklin said, “our defensive line still holds an advantage over our offensive line.”

Which is understandable when the starting defense is out there; returning tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel form one of the best tandems in the nation. But Schwan, who has never recorded a sack in a regular-season game while seeing limited action the last two seasons, enjoyed a big day.

Another end, Curtis Cothran, had two sacks of his own. He saw action in one game last season. The other sack was by tackle Tarow Barney, who had two off the bench in 2014.

Concerning, no?

“That's going to continue to be a work in progress and a focus all offseason,” Franklin said of the O-line.

To review, last year's line surrendered a school-record 44 sacks. The Lions rushed for just 2.9 yards a carry, and had respective rankings of 108th in passing efficiency (109.41 rating), 110th in scoring (20.6 ppg), 111th in total yardage per game (335.3) and 117th in rushing yardage per game (101.9), out of 125 major-college teams.

They have since lost their two most experienced offensive linemen, left tackle Donovan Smith and left guard Miles Dieffenbach, and on Saturday Paris Palmer and Brendan Mahon were the respective first-teamers at those two spots, joining center Angelo Mangiro, right guard Brian Gaia and right tackle Andrew Nelson.

Also appearing for the Blue were center Wendy Laurent, guard Derek Dowrey and tackle Brendan Brosnan.

“I think we're way ahead of where we were at this point last year, as a group,” Franklin said. “We've still got a situation where we've got a brand new guy trying to learn left tackle, and I think that showed up a few times today, but as a group four out of the five, and really in the totality of it, we're further along.”

Palmer, a junior-college transfer who is new to the program this spring, had his struggles against Schwan, particularly on outside rushes.

Palmer was not made available for interviews after the game, but Mahon said the adjustment to major-college football is considerable.

“My biggest thing was the speed of the game, so I'm sure that's what (it is for) Paris and Sterling (Jenkins),” Mahon, referring also to a freshman tackle who played for the White. “It takes getting used to.”

The other issue is blocking guys who understand the offense inside and out.

“All spring practice, those guys know,” Mahon said. “They know our calls, when the ball is to going to be snapped on, so that can get to you a bunch. Guys will be flying off the line. They pick up on it. It's smart play by them. They know a lot of things that we're doing, but we try and throw little tricks out there.”

Christian Hackenberg (shown above) went 17-for-29 for 180 yards and a touchdown -- that a two-yarder to Saeed Blacknall -- and was intercepted once. Blacknall and Geno Lewis caught six passes each, and Akeel Lynch ran nine times for 50 yards and a score.

“We did some good things,” Donovan said. “Shot ourselves in the foot a little bit. Had a couple nice drives. Would have liked to punch the one (in the second quarter) in the end zone, that's for sure. We'll look at it. Paris Palmer's in there for the first time. That's a new experience for him. Brendan Brosnan's first time out there in front of a lot of people. We'll watch it, look at it.”

At least Schwan, a rising redshirt junior from Harrisburg, came away feeling good.

“It's surreal just sitting here (in the interview room),” he said. “I just want to keep this confidence as high as I can and use it to build into the upcoming months and just put my nose to the grindstone and … get to next fall and do the best that I can.”

The O-line, meanwhile, simply needs to do better.

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