Four plays. Four runs. Four chances for Penn State’s offensive line to finish on a strong note.
With a nervous Beaver Stadium watching the start of overtime on Saturday, Miles Sanders got the ball each time, gaining 4 yards, 13, 4 and 4 again to reach the end zone for the winning score against Appalachian State.
The O-line — labeled a strength of the team by coach James Franklin for the first time in his tenure — didn’t have a consistent debut in 2018. But the players on the unit appreciated the trust that they’d get it done in overtime.
“I definitely think that gives us a little bit of momentum,” junior Connor McGovern said Wednesday. “We knew that it was going to be up to us to finish out the game. We didn’t start off well in the first half. But once we got things clicking in the second half, we were fine. And we won the game on our terms.”
The junior from Lake-Lehman was making his first start at right guard since the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2016 season, switching over from center, where Michal Menet made his first career start.
It didn’t go as smoothly as the Nittany Lions would have liked against the Mountaineers’ 3-4 defense.
“I think there was some growing pains there,” Franklin said. “I think it’s probably not an ideal situation that your center, who’s starting his first game of his career, is playing an odd defense where you’ve got a nose (tackle) right over your head. The positive was we didn’t have any bad snaps, which typically is an issue with first-time starters at center. But being in a situation where you got a true (zero-technique nose tackle) right over your head, probably not ideal.
“We’ve gotta play lower. We’ve gotta be more aggressive. We’ve gotta displace people a little bit more often. But I think both (Menet and McGovern), facing an odd-front defense and playing a different position, I don’t think they played up to the standards that I know they want to play at — or we need them to play at.”
Both McGovern and Menet mentioned “fundamentals” as an area of clean-up heading into a tougher test on Saturday night at Heinz Field against Pitt.
For McGovern, he said it took a bit of time to acclimate to his old spot at right guard. He had played center all through high school for the Black Knights and started in the middle for all 13 games of the 2017 season.
The biggest adjustment was with his timing — recalibrating his internal clock after the snap.
“Definitely a little bit,” McGovern said. “I’m not used to not having someone right over top of me (at the start of the play). So you’re setting with depth and having time to do it instead of instantly dealing with a pass (rush) move.”
Menet, a redshirt sophomore, said he got more comfortable as the day went along.
“It wasn’t perfect, but we finished out the game and were fighting the whole time,” Menet said. “It’s really great to be around a bunch of veteran guys, it makes my job a little bit easier.”
The final stats weren’t anything alarming. Along with the 42 points scored, the Lions topped 200 yards rushing and 400 total offense while averaging 4.7 yards per carry with only three negative-yardage plays.
But though Trace McSorley was only sacked once, the senior quarterback had plenty times where pressure flushed him from the pocket and ultimately blew up the play, including a few times when App State sent only three rushers and dropped seven or eight into coverage.
“We can always be more dominant up front,” McGovern said. “Driving off the ball, making holes bigger for Miles and the running backs, giving Trace more time to throw — there’s always room for improvement. We just need to be more fundamentally strong. Last week that dropped a little bit.”
One other battle that’s still playing out for the unit is at right tackle.
Fifth-year senior Chasz Wright got the start on Saturday, but redshirt sophomore Will Fries ended up seeing more snaps and manned the position down the stretch in regulation and overtime.
“Both are still competing all week long,” McGovern said. “I’m not even sure who’s starting (this week). But I’m comfortable playing next to either one.”
Regardless of how it shakes out there, the unit will have to be better against the bigger and more talented front seven of the Panthers on Saturday.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt … we gotta play better up front on both sides of the ball,” Franklin said. “D-line has gotta be dominant and disruptive, and the O-line has gotta be dominant and disruptive. That’s something we’re going to talk about this week. We’ve gotta grow there.”
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse