Penn State’s Brendan Mahon was the best left tackle in the country last week, according to Pro Football Focus.
He now finds himself at right tackle.
Hey, whatever works, he said after Saturday’s 38-14 victory over Maryland.
“I’ll go wherever I need to go to help this team win — left (tackle), right, guard, center,” he said. “Wherever this team needs me, I’ll go.”
Mahon, a redshirt junior who has in fact started at three positions since arriving on campus, again opened on the left side Saturday, one week after PFF rated his effort in the 29-26 overtime victory over Minnesota foremost among those playing his position in the country.
Then Andrew Nelson was lost late in the second quarter with an injured right leg, an injury that will likely end his season, according to coach James Franklin.
Mahon moved to the right side, Paris Palmer subbed in on the left flank, and the line, amid its most dominating day of the season and one of its best since Franklin’s hire in 2014, didn’t skip a beat.
The result was a day in which Saquon Barkley rushed 31 times for 202 yards, both career highs, and the most yardage by a Penn State player since Larry Johnson had 279 against Michigan State in 2002.
Barkley scored on a 45-yard gallop right before halftime, and was part of an offense that generated 372 yards on the ground, the Lions’ most since they had 389 against Youngstown State in 2006, and most against an FBS opponent since they generated 390 against Michigan State in 2002.
PSU’s 524 total yards was its most since it had 574 against Eastern Michigan in 2013, and most against a Big Ten foe since it piled up 546 against Indiana in ’12.
Hard to say when they started building toward this. Maybe it was last October in Baltimore, when Barkley, amid a rough game against the very same Terrapins, heard some encouraging words from a teammate who has since moved on.
Also keeping the ball rolling was Franklin’s decision this week to institute something he calls “a chaos period” in practice, in an attempt to awaken his team earlier in games. And then there was the unsolicited advice Franklin heard from a fan as he entered the stadium before Saturday’s game.
Whatever the case, everybody seemed to believe it was a big moment. PSU is 4-2 heading into its bye week, with a home game against Ohio State looming the week after that. While victory over the Buckeyes appears unlikely, bowl eligibility does not.
Tight end Mike Gesicki, who opened the scoring with a touchdown reception from Trace McSorley, had said before the victory over Minnesota that that game and the one against Maryland would go a long way toward determining the fate of this year’s team. And he was holding to that afterward.
“Two weeks ago, we were sitting there at 2-2, and we had a tough loss (a 42-39 defeat at Pitt in Week Two),” he said. “Then last week at halftime we’re sitting there, and it’s not happening yet.”
The Lions were, in fact, in a 13-3 hole through two quarters against the Gophers, before rallying for a 29-26 overtime victory.
“The second half last week and today is exactly how Penn State football should play and will continue to play in the future — just confident, fast, physical,” Gesicki said. “Just be Penn State, man. That’s all we’ve got to do. I think we’re starting to do that.”
The plan going into Saturday’s game was not necessarily to pound the ball on the ground, Gesicki and Mahon both said, but that’s how things evolved. Fine with Mahon and his linemates.
“I love run-blocking,” he said.
Barkley rushed for a school freshman-record 1,076 yards last year. The Terps limited him to 65 yards in 20 attempts, however, and he was admittedly frustrated.
During the game — a 31-30 PSU victory in Baltimore — Akeel Lynch, the guy whose job Barkley had taken, sought him out on the bench.
“You’re young,” Lynch told him. “You’ll have many opportunities. Get it together. Keep your head up. This team needs you.”
“Just him saying that meant so much,” Barkley said of Lynch, who has since transferred to Nevada. “He might not have understood it at the time, but it meant so much, because he was a leader and he was an older guy on the team.”
Barkley has had his struggles this season, as opponents have loaded up to stop him. He entered Saturday’s game with just 380 yards rushing, and hadn’t surpassed 100 since the opener against Kent State.
And the offense as a whole has been inconsistent. The Lions hadn’t scored on an opening drive all season, and had been outscored 92-54 in the first halves of their first five games. That’s what led Franklin to institute the chaos period at the beginning of practice, a random drill that he doesn’t reveal to anyone (including his coaches) until the session begins.
On Tuesday, Gesicki said, the offense was asked to execute a 16-play drive during the chaos period, which was unlike anything they had ever been required to do before.
“You don’t know the situation,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s kind of just like the game. You don’t know how it’s going to go, but you have to make the most of it. You have to make the most of the circumstances that you’re put in. I think that that helped us today.”
Hard to say if that might be true of the advice Franklin received from a random fan when he arrived at the Beave on Saturday. The guy used to offer encouragement, the coach said. Now he tells him the Lions need to line up in the pistol or the spread or the I or whatever.
Suffice it to say that through all this, the coach has maintained some degree of clarity.
“Everyone thinks this offense is like a magic wand,” he said. “If you’re good up front, you have the chance to be successful and that’s the difference — we’re getting better on the offensive line.”
On Saturday, everything fell into place. The little moments resulted in some big ones. The offense consumed big gulps on a seven-play, 84-yard drive to start the game, leading to Gesicki’s TD. And Barkley was Barkley again, notably on his scoring run with 15 seconds left in the first half, which extended PSU’s lead from 17-14 to 24-14.
“You just see Saquon out in the open field and you kind of predict the end result,” Mahon said. “There’s nothing better. You kind of look and glance, make sure there’s no yellow flags around. Then you celebrate.”
Nelson was injured shortly before Barkley’s run, leading to Mahon’s move. On the TD he and guard Ryan Bates double-teamed defensive end Kingsley Opara, and Bates then slid to the second level and took out cornerback William Likely. Just like that, Barkley was running free.
“The thing I take pride in the most is making guys miss,” he said. “If I’ve got some good hats on hats, I’ve got to make that guy miss.”
Which, he admitted, is not always possible at this level of competition.
“I just try to win more than not, to be honest,” he said.
When asked where he might rate Saturday’s game, he chuckled, paused, then said something more about the O-line, about getting hats on hats.
“I wasn’t surprised (at the big day), but I wasn’t caught up in the stats,” he said. “I feel like when you get caught up in the stats, then you’re not being the player you’re able to be.”
Point taken, but here are a few more: McSorley went 10-for-19 for 152 yards, and besides the TD toss to Gesicki hit DeAndre Thompkins for a 70-yard score in the third quarter. The QB’s early keepers — he ran 18 times for a career-high 81 yards in all — helped loosen things up for Barkley.
Once again, one thing led to another. Happens all the time.