BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — When the 2021 Penn State football season came to a crashing halt with six losses in the last eight games, coach James Franklin had a big decision to make.
He could have written off the season as a product of a tough second-half schedule and reasoned that things would even themselves out over time. After all, five of Penn State’s losses came against ranked opponents, and none by more than nine points until the Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas.
Or he could have made building depth an emphasis for the program’s future.
Franklin chose the latter, and the fruits of his decision were on full display in Saturday’s 45-14 rout of Indiana. Depth was key. Drew Shelton took over for the injured Olu Fashanu at left tackle, and Penn State didn’t miss a beat, manhandling the Hoosiers in the trenches for 179 rushing yards and only allowing one sack.
“Shelton, as a true freshman starting at left tackle in the Big Ten, not only did he play, but he played well,” Franklin said in his postgame press conference. “You’ve got JB Nelson, who we were trying to redshirt as well, and he played a ton of reps. You also see Sal (Wormley), he’s banged up and bruised. You look at Hunter (Nourzad), banged up and bruised and he battled.
“I’m really proud of those guys, what they did, how they did and the sacrifices they’re making for the team. I thought some of our veterans did a good job helping those guys get ready to play this game.”
While the Hoosiers put up little resistance, part of that was because Penn State seemed to have an able body available whenever someone else needed to step onto the field. Penn State allowed is only sack of the game on its first offensive drive, and that happened only after Nourzad had to come out with a minor injury. For the rest of the game, Penn State kept quarterbacks Sean Clifford and Drew Allar upright, as the younger offensive linemen figured out and embraced their responsibilities.
“There’s always a next man up mentality,” tight end Brenton Strange said. “I think Drew, JB Nelson and a lot of other guys stepped in there and did a great job. From their preparation and how (offensive line) Coach (Phil) Trautwein and the leaders of the group have prepared them from the summer to now, they were ready for their moment.”
That work continued even through game day, as Penn State’s younger linemen used the time in between plays to ask their veterans what they needed to do to adjust to any changes that the Hoosiers might make. Penn State had several reasons why it got stronger as the game progressed, and one big one was the line staying on top of its assignments.
“During timeouts, we’re trying to go over the necessities to the younger guys,” Penn State right tackle Bryce Effner said. “Then if they have any concerns, they’ll ask us, and it’s kind of checks and balances. If they don’t know something, they’re not scared to ask us. We have that culture on the offensive line where questions are good, and if you have a question, it’s super important to ask it before you run the play.
“Drew (Shelton) is a good offensive lineman, and he was asking me questions (during the game). I can’t tell you what the questions were because that reveals our playbook, but they were good questions.”
Although Penn State asked plenty of questions on the sidelines, it answered an important one on the field in matching last season’s win total. No, this Penn State team still isn’t up to the level of competing with Ohio State and Michigan for the Big Ten East, but it now has the kind of depth that it didn’t a season ago. When the going got tough for last year’s roster, Penn State didn’t have the bodies needed to overcome the injuries that every team must face, and collapsed under the weight of a grueling Big Ten campaign.
This year’s team isn’t likely to do that. Penn State should be favored in all three of its remaining regular season games. Three wins would give Penn State a 10-win season, its first since 2019.
“With all the moving parts, I think that our team is getting a lot of depth,” Clifford said. “I think that you see it across all positions. O-line, running back, wide receiver, quarterback, everywhere. Kudos to Coach Franklin and the people that he brings in, breeding competition and really working at it.”