Penn State’s offense has struggled in 2021.
The Nittany Lions are seventh in the Big 10 in scoring and a paltry 13th in rushing offense. Although the run game has improved in recent weeks, with Keyvone Lee gaining a season-high 88 yards on 20 carries in this past Saturday’s loss to Michigan, the offense itself, and the offensive line, have been under scrutiny.
Ten offensive linemen have taken snaps for Penn State in 2021. The Nittany Lions’ starting combination has consisted of center Mike Miranda, guards Juice Scruggs and Eric Wilson and tackles Rasheed Walker and Caeden Wallace. Of the other five linemen, only Bryce Effner, the Lions’ unofficial sixth man, has been on the field for more than 100 snaps. Effner is also the only Nittany Lions lineman who has a higher run-blocking grade than pass-blocking grade, according to Pro Football Focus. That advanced stat that lines up with the Lions’ traditional offensive numbers.
Although the Nittany Lions have been better overall in the passing game, Penn State struggled to protect quarterback Sean Clifford Saturday. Clifford was sacked seven times, with ends Aiden Hutchinson and David Ojobo combining for five of them. It’s fair to point out that Michigan’s pass-rush tandem of Hutchinson and Ojabo is arguably the best anywhere in college football, but the general consensus in State College is that Penn State’s offensive line– both against Michigan and all season– hasn’t been good enough.
Here is an analytical look at Penn State’s linemen and what Pro Football Focus says about how they looked this past Saturday and all of 2021.
Center: Mike Miranda
In a conference that has four of PFF’s top 10 centers and five of its top 25, Miranda ranks 11th and is the nation’s 116th ranked center overall with a grade of 62.1.
His pass-blocking grade of 66.5 ranks 80th out of 186 centers, and his run-blocking (62.2) falls outside the top 100, as Miranda ranks 115th in that category. After having his highest-graded game of the season at Maryland, in which PFF gave him a 76.1 rating overall and 85.7 in pass-blocking, Miranda had one of his worst games against the Wolverines. Albeit with a season-low 25 snaps– injury ended his day early– he allowed a season-high three quarterback hurries and three pressures, which tied for a season-high. His offensive rating fell from 76.1 to 53.6, and his pass-blocking fell all the way down to 26.3.
In three seasons as a heavy contributor, Miranda’s grade has gradually gone down from 65.1 in 2019 to 63.8 last season to 62.2 this year.
Right Guard: Juice Scruggs
Scruggs, a right guard who has spent time at center in 2021, has been Penn State’s highest-graded regular o-lineman this year (68.5) and had one of his better games of the season against Michigan, according to PFF.
Playing 61 of his 86 snaps at center, Scruggs held his own against the Wolverines. With an overall grade of 69.7 and a pass-blocking grade of 80.8, both the highest since week four against Villanova, Scruggs was a bright spot in what was a shaky showing by the unit as a whole.
Scrugg’s run-blocking grade stands at 67.2 and his pass-blocking grade 74.4.
Left guard: Eric Wilson
Penn State’s left guard has had steady grades in all facets of blocking according to Pro Football Focus, with his overall grade (65.4), his run-blocking grade (62.2) and his pass-blocking grade (68.6) all in the 60s.
Wilson struggled against Michigan, placing below his season averages in all three blocking facets. His overall grade of 56.4 was his lowest of the season, and while his run-blocking grade (56.9) was up nearly three points from the previous week’s game at Maryland, his pass-blocking grade (46.9) was down more than 41 points.
Wilson’s pass-blocking has been erratic the past few weeks, according to PFF, with his 88 rating at Maryland sandwiched between sub-50 ratings against Ohio State and Michigan. Facing a Rutgers pass-rush that has fewer sacks than any team in the Big 10 besides Indiana, Wilson might have a good opportunity this week to get his pass-blocking back on track.
Guard/tackle: Bryce Effner
This might be interesting. Effner– albeit with just 175 snaps– is by far Penn State’s highest-graded run blocker this season at 85.3. After Miranda’s injury, Effner, taking over at right guard after Scruggs moved to center, had his highest total snap count of the season against Michigan (61) and was in for more running plays (21) than he has been at any other time this year. Sure enough, Keyvone Lee ran for 88 yards on 20 carries, which is the closest any Penn State runner has come to a 100-yard game since 2020.
Coincidence? Maybe a little bit. Effner’s run-blocking grade of 66.4 was hardly superhuman, so there were definitely other factors to Lee’s success. But the facts are that Effner played more, and Penn State ran for more yards. That might give James Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yuricich something to think about for the future.
Left tackle: Rasheed Walker
Now for the tackles. The most reviled group of Penn State’s o-line at the moment.
To be fair to Walker and his colleague Caedan Wallace (more on him in a minute), any pair of tackles in America would struggle against Hutchinson– who might be the No. 1 overall draft pick in a few months– and Ojobo, who leads the Big 10 in sacks.
At first glance, Walker’s PFF stat line against Michigan doesn’t look horrible relative to the rest of the O-Line, what with a 62.5 overall grade, a 64.4 grade in run blocking and a 55 pass-blocking grade.
Beneath the surface, however, it gets a little more ugly. Of Michigan’s seven sacks, Walker was responsible for two of them, and he also allowed a quarterback hit, four hurries and seven pressures.
Starting with a 49-grade performance at Wisconsin that still stands as his lowest of the season, Walker’s PFF numbers have dipped.
In roughly the same amount of snaps– 729 in 2021 to 726 in 2020–
His overall grade is down to 60.1 from 70.6, his run-blocking grade down to 59.4 from 71.9 and his pass blocking to 62.8 from 67.9. His numbers from 2019– 69.7/68.4/63.9– were also better than 2021.
Right Tackle: Caedan Wallace
According to PFF, Wallace was the better of Penn State’s tackles against Michigan. Overall, however, his performance has been worse than it was in 2020 and is the lowest-graded of Penn State’s o-linemen.
Although Wallace had 300 fewer snaps last season, his grades in overall offense, run and pass-blocking, respectively, were 68.3, 65.1 and 67.2, compared to 50.8/45.7/55.7 thus far in 2021.
Against Michigan, Wallace was responsible for three pressures, a hurry and a sack, and also got called for holding Hutchinson on what would have been a third-down conversion.
His overall grades against the Wolverines– 66.5/69.5/57.9– were serviceable relative to everybody else. Wallace’s overall play, however, has been less than that.
According to PFF, Penn State fans’ are right to be frustrated with the offensive line. Despite the same position coach and many of the same players, nobody has been statistically better in 2021 than they were a year ago. Regardless of what’s to blame– Yurcich’s scheme, Franklin in general, line-coach Phil Trautwein– the hosses up front have struggled, and there isn’t much time left this year to fix it.