Ryan Bates slammed his fist on the turf. He knew immediately he was in trouble.
Penn State’s left tackle had helped the Nittany Lions rack up 28 points in the first half of last year’s game at Ohio State — more than they had ever scored in an entire game in Columbus since joining the Big Ten.
But on a third-and-2 play midway through the third quarter, Saquon Barkley took a handoff and dove for a first down. In doing so, he clipped Bates’ left leg from behind, rolling up on him and crumpling the Lions’ top lineman to the ground.
Bates got his ankle taped up and managed to return for one more series, taking five snaps. On the last one, he struggled to plant that left leg as he rushed up to block a Buckeyes linebacker, who shoved him backward. He stumbled over fallen tight end Mike Gesicki and took another hard spill.
Penn State punted, the third quarter ended and Bates never returned. The Buckeyes proceeded to wallop the Lions in the fourth, outscoring them 19-3 to earn a win that put them in the Big Ten title game over Penn State.
That sequence, understandably, still sticks with Bates 11 months later.
“Especially (because) that was a game I got hurt last year,” Bates said. “I was kind of upset I got hurt that game. I feel like I could have been a difference-maker that game.”
Bates missed the next several games, including a loss at Michigan State the following week, and didn’t play extensively until the Fiesta Bowl win at the end of December. Heading into Saturday’s rematch with the Buckeyes, however, he and the rest of the Lions’ line are feeling confident.
This fall, back starting at left tackle, Bates has helped the Penn State offense lead the nation in points (55.5 per game) and rushing touchdowns (20) through four weeks. The unit of Bates, Steven Gonzalez, Michal Menet, Connor McGovern and Will Fries has given up just five sacks.
Menet is the lone newcomer in a starting lineup that has jelled quickly.
“The whole offensive line as a whole, I think we’re the best we’ve been in years — obviously since I’ve been here,” said Bates, a redshirt junior. “Our chemistry hasn’t been like this. Chemistry is awesome. We’re all friends. We all hang out outside of football. I think that’s what makes us connect. We’re all on the same page a lot of the time. We trust each other.
“Offensive line is about trust. I gotta trust the person next to me that he’s going to do his job and he’s gotta trust me that I’m going to do mine. And I think that’s the biggest thing with our offensive line right now is we trust each other.”
Shortly after Miles Sanders exploded for a career performance of 200 yards and three touchdowns on Friday against Illinois, the running back took to Twitter on the trip home, writing, “I’m telling you those big boys are something special up front.”
Urban Meyer agrees.
“I was just visiting with our defensive staff, and they think this is one of the better offensive lines they’ve seen,” the Buckeyes coach said.
But the Lions haven’t faced a defense close to the talent level that the Buckeyes will bring into Happy Valley on Saturday night. Even with the absence of All-America defensive end Nick Bosa — out for the next several weeks following core muscle surgery — the Bucks have one of the top D-lines in the country, now anchored by tackle Dre’Mont Jones.
“Obviously this is the first opponent we’ve played to this level,” Lions coach James Franklin said. “The type of talent that they have, the type of size and depth — one of probably the more talented rosters in the country, if not the most talented roster in the country. So this is going to be a different type of challenge. There’s no doubt about that.”
Just as he did for years at Penn State, unit coach Larry Johnson continues to churn out NFL talent up front for Ohio State.
How well the Lions’ front five handles the pressure will go a long way to deciding a winner. Although the Lions scored 38 points in last year’s meeting, they rushed for just 91 yards as a team and had only 283 yards of total offense — barely more than the 276 they had in the 2016 win, when the overall talent gap was wider.
Penn State is expecting more this time around.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Franklin said. “But again, I think we’re in a much different position than we’ve been in the past with our offensive line, not only from protecting our quarterback, but also more consistently being able to run the ball.”
Freshman charged with theft
One of the talented backups on that offensive line is facing two misdemeanors, according to court documents.
True freshman tackle Rasheed Walker was charged Tuesday with one count of theft by unlawful taking and one count of receiving stolen property.
Citing Penn State police, the Centre Daily Times reported that Walker admitted to stealing a mountain bike from outside of the athletic department’s academic center rather than walking back to his dorm.
According to the report, a surveillance camera spotted the alleged theft on Sept. 11 with the bike, valued at $150, discarded in the grass near Walker’s building.
A preliminary hearing is set for Oct. 31.
“We are obviously very, very disappointed, and it will be handled,” Franklin told reporters in State College after Wednesday’s practice. “And it will be handled and taken care of like we’ve handled every discipline issue in our program since we’ve been here.
“We won’t have any more comments on it, but obviously we take the reputation of the university and the reputation of our program very seriously, and we’ll deal with this in the same manner.”
Rated the nation’s No. 65 overall recruit for 2018 in the 247Sports Composite, Walker was the final member of the Lions’ top-five signing class this past winter. He was the only member of the class not to sign in December’s early period, picking Penn State over Ohio State on the February signing date.
The 6-foot-6, 308-pound Maryland native played in mop-up duty at left tackle each of the last two weeks against Kent State and Illinois. New NCAA rules allow players to appear in up to four games without losing a year of eligibility.
Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse