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Big Ten Network’s Matt Millen says Penn State’s offensive line needs to play better

The former Nittany Lions star said the line has to create more movement to free up the running backs and improve the ground game so the team doesn't become one-dimensional against Ohio State.

Penn State running back Noah Cain (21) splits two Ball State defenders on a first half run during a game in State College on Sept. 11. Penn State defeated Ball State 44-13
Penn State running back Noah Cain (21) splits two Ball State defenders on a first half run during a game in State College on Sept. 11. Penn State defeated Ball State 44-13Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Matt Millen made a living in football being physical in the trenches, first as a defensive tackle for Penn State and later as an NFL linebacker who won four Super Bowls with Oakland, San Francisco, and Washington.

So in his years on the football field and later observing the game as a color commentator and analyst for a number of outlets, the latest being the Big Ten Network, Millen knows what good line play is all about. He says he’s not seeing it along the Penn State offensive line.

“What I see is an offensive line that gets no movement,” Millen said Wednesday in a phone interview. “I think that until Penn State can straighten out their offensive line, they’re going to struggle offensively, period, because it all starts and ends right there.”

The run game has been an issue all season for 20th-ranked Penn State, which takes on No. 5 Ohio State on Saturday night at the Shoe. The Nittany Lions (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) are averaging less than 119 rush yards per game after accounting for only 62 in last weekend’s 20-18 loss to Illinois in nine overtimes.

Millen said he watched video of the overtime after he returned home from the game he was broadcasting and saw the same problems. The Lions managed just one successful two-point conversion run, by Noah Cain, in their last seven OT periods.

“I wanted to see if they were getting any movement up front, so you already know the answer to that,” he said. “Even when they sent Noah Cain into the line on that two-point conversion, that kid didn’t score. They’re not moving anybody off the ball.”

The run game will get a boost Saturday if quarterback Sean Clifford is able to be a part of it, something that he wasn’t able to do last weekend because of the lingering effects of an upper-body injury. That will be a necessary part of the offense that can’t afford to become one-dimensional against the strong defense of the Buckeyes (6-1, 4-0).

Millen really likes Penn State’s three wide receivers, especially Jahan Dotson, whom he calls “an eraser (who) can make your mistakes go away.” He teams with Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith.

“When you become one-dimensional, that’s a problem because most teams will have at least a good corner-safety combination that can handle Dotson,” he said. “Now having said that, I do like Washington and I do like Lambert-Smith. There’s three players there that can carry the load, and I like (tight end) Theo Johnson inside. I think that part’s fine.

“But if you’re completely just throwing all the time and you’re going to give the look that you want to try to run it, then I would say give up the look and just throw it.”

Millen said part of the Lions’ offensive line problems is shared with other teams in this age of the run-pass option.

“I think this is across the board in college football, offensive lines are way too high,” he said. “They stand straight up. I think it’s because we’re in the era of the RPO and the RPO lends itself to getting up higher because it’s a run-pass option.

“So what ends up happening is you see a lot of guys just pushing with their hands, the defense responds by doing the exact same thing, and the physicality of the game is out the window. That’s what I’m seeing across the board. I have a lot of guys whose opinions I trust, they say the same thing.”

Millen said he also likes the Penn State defense, especially the secondary. He said the season-ending injury to PJ Mustipher was a huge loss, but that the Nittany Lions show toughness on the line with ends Jesse Luketa and Nick Tarburton.

“They have good speed,” he said. “I love their secondary. I think their secondary is pretty darn good. The second level is pretty good. I think they lost a lot when Mustipher left. I liked how he was playing. He was finally getting off the ball and penetrating, getting upfield, and then he got hurt.

“I like the way Luketa plays. He’s full-out and he’s physical. Tarburton’s another one. Tarburton leaves it out on the field. He just plays hard.”

Millen thinks the Lions defense will have its hands full with Ohio State’s explosive offense that leads the nation in scoring and total yards led by redshirt freshman quarterback CJ Stroud. The front seven needs to tighten up after allowing 357 rush yards last week to Illinois.

“It’s a complicated game,” he said, “but it’s very simple in that fundamental football still wins.”