GUARDED OPTIMISM: No. 9 Penn State Nittany Lions dealing with more injuries up front
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Earlier this season Penn State endured a rash of injuries to his its linebacker corps. Now, coach James Franklin hopes it can do the same down a handful of offensive linemen.
The No. 9 Nittany Lions (8-2, 6-1 Big Ten) will have to continue their chase for the Big Ten East title without their top three tackles as Franklin announced Tuesday Paris Palmer will miss the remainder of the season with an unspecified injury.
Already without starters Andrew Nelson and Brendan Mahon, Franklin is questioning whether to burn redshirts for vaunted recruits Will Fries and Michal Menet or move players from positions where they’ve helped pave the way for the Big Ten’s leading rusher, Saquon Barkley, and one of the country’s most explosive offenses.
“We are not, at this point, doing anything,” Franklin said. “But the way this thing is playing out, you never know. We want to be prepared for it. So those guys will be up with varsity and get a bunch of reps.”
Compounding the problem is uncertainty surrounding Connor McGovern’s status. The freshman has excelled as the team’s starting right guard during its six-game win streak but also left the Indiana game with an unspecified injury.
As a result, the Nittany Lions struggled for the first time since Week 4 to establish a running game and quarterback Trace McSorley was under more pressure than usual. Barkley was hit behind the line or dropped for no gain on 15 of his 33 carries and Penn State finished with 77 rushing yards on 45 carries.Barkley is already 18 carries over where he finished last season with and Franklin said the team is monitoring his snap counts to keep him as fresh as possible.
“It’s also hard to take a guy off the field that has a chance to break a play at any minute,” Franklin said.
But Barkley’s ability to cut off of outside blocks was clearly hampered against Indiana. Chasz Wright started his first game at right tackle and was beaten on a number of those tackles for loss. He also gave up two pressures that resulted in two of three sacks of McSorley, who was hurried to throw two interceptions and took a number of hard shots after releasing the ball.
The front five was further shaken up by Palmer’s exit as it forced Penn State to move starting freshman left guard Ryan Bates to tackle where he’ll practice this week, Franklin said.
“I think that we have the next-man-up mentality,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “We’ve shown it all season long. Whether it was earlier in the year with linebackers and now with the offensive line. Coach (Joe) Moorhead always tells the backups, ‘You’re one play away from being a starter.’ So those guys buy into their role.”
The chances the next man up will be a returning starter when Penn State travels to play Rutgers (2-8, 0-7 Big Ten) on Saturday are unknown.
Franklin said it’s “too early” in the week to know McGovern’s status or if he’ll responded well enough to treatments to play. Mahon suffered an apparent leg injury against Iowa and did not return to that game. The athletic department confirmed he was taken to the hospital last Tuesday and was in stable condition then. Franklin hasn’t given specifics on Mahon’s condition in any of his last three meetings with reporters but did not rule out his return to the lineup.
“We have all week long to figure that out,” Franklin said. “Obviously, it also helps with it being an 8 p.m. night game on the front end.”