The Trenches: Penn State vs. Virginia

American football is a glorious, gritty game played by tough, strong me. Unfortunately the only players we usually hear about are the pretty boys who wear special practice jerseys and the glory hogging “skill” players. I’m going to try to change that a little bit.

A lot has been said already about Virginia’s three-headed running monster of Perry Jones, Kevin Parks and Clifton Richardson. We know Penn State will face challenges in the secondary because of inexperience, a lack of depth, and the questionable status of Stephen Morris. There’s also the story of UVA quarterback John Rocco, who grew up dreaming of becoming a Nittany Lion, having a chance to deal a serious blow to Penn State morale.

However, A big part of why football games are won and lost takes place on the line of scrimmage, where the most beast-like players do battle. Welcome to the trenches.

When Virginia has the ball

Perhaps the two most talented players on the entire Cavaliers team are the starting tackles, Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses. Penn State might want to think about some up-the-middle blitzes because it will be tough sledding trying to get pressure off the edge against the Hoos. They only allowed 1.23 sacks per game last season and PSU only had one last week against Ohio.

Aboushi was named a preseason All-American by ESPN this season after he returned to school despite being projected as a second round NFL draft pick. More amazingly is the fact that Aboushi is a devout Muslim who fasted through Ramadan despite the month-long holiday occurring during summer practice.

Protein shakes? Training table spreads? Not for Aboushi. Not during daylight. He’s up at 5 a.m. to eat a large breakfast, and then he’s done for more than 12 hours, some of which are spent in calorie-burning, sweat-inducing workouts.

It will probably take more than a few bull rushes to tire out Aboushi this season. Meanwhile, Moses is has reportedly switched away from fatty foods and is down 30 pounds from last season.

“When a big guy loses [30] pounds and can drive by McDonald’s and not order a No. 6 and super-size it,” London said, “I think he’s really getting it.”

I don’t usually buy into the “best shape of his life” stories, but this one was great because Virginia head coach Mike London talked about a No. 6 like it was the most common thing in the world. He also apparently knows of a secret McDonald’s where you can still super-size your meal. Nobody tell Michelle Obama.

Although he’s got plenty of guard experience, junior Luke Bowanko is starting at center for the first time this season, and he had two fumbled snaps in the opener against Richmond. That could open up some opportunities for the Nittany Lions, who weren’t able to cause any turnovers against Ohio despite having a couple of balls thrown right at defenders.

Going up against Virginia’s studly tackles are starting defensive ends Deion Barnes and Sean Stanley. Neither player was able to generate much pressure on Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton, so it’s hard to imagine them having much luck against Aboushi and Moses. That said, Virginia signal caller Michael Rocco is decidedly less mobile than Tettleton, so at least he’s more likely to stay in the pocket for Penn State’s pass rushers.

It’s also worth noting that Barnes did actually record a sack last week, but it was only for one yard, which wasn’t enough to slow down Tettleton’s second half onslaught. Penn State at least has depth at the end position, with Pete Massaro, C.J. Olaniyan and Anthony Zettel all seeing time against Ohio.

When it came to running the ball last week, Virginia wasn’t nearly as impressive as it was in pass protection. The Hoos only gained 4.4 yards per rush against an inferior Richmond squad, and only one out of 42 rushes went for over 20 yards. Meanwhile, Penn State’s front, led by tackles Jordan Hill and DaQuan Jones, allowed just 3.7 yards per rush to Ohio.

Even with a lot of time to throw the ball, Rocco won’t find it easy to move the ball downfield if he’s repeatedly in third-and-long situations. Penn State needs to slow the running game in order to keep its inexperienced secondary out of dangerous situations.

When Penn State has the ball

Despite losing their number one tackle Donovan Smith, the Nittany Lions didn’t allow any sacks last week. Smith is good to go against Virginia, so the offensive line has to like its chances of keeping Matt McGloin’s jersey clean this week.

Add to that the inability of Virginia to record a sack against Richmond last week and an inexperienced Cavalier secondary, and you have reason to believe that Penn State will be able to move the ball through the air.

Virginia’s sole returning defensive line starter is Jake Snyder, an end who is more of a run stopper than a pash rusher. Despite starting 12 games last season, Snyder only came up with one sack. That problem may be amended with a youth movement that includes true freshmen Eli Harold and Mike Moore. Both guys were huge gets for Virginia, and Harold is already making his presence felt with five total tackles in last week’s game.

Just in case Harold got a big head from notching 16 sacks in high school last year, he’s being served humble pie in practice by going up against Aboushi and Moses.

Harold says, “I’m going against one of the best tackles in college football in Oday Aboushi and Morgan Moses, those guys just bring me under their wing, Billy Schautz those guys are just teaching me the ins and outs of what I’m doing wrong and what I’m doing right. We’re just trying to bring it all together so I can be a better player on and off the field.”

Converted linebacker Bill Schautz will play opposite Snyder on rushing downs, but look for Virginia to get Harold involved if Penn State gets into obvious passing situations.

On the inside, senior Will Hill is getting a lot of attention because of his impressive spring and he could rival Jordan Hill in terms of being an impact defensive tackle. Against Richmond, Virginia allowed less than two yards per rushing attempt. Penn State was already going to have trouble running the ball with halfback Bill Belton’s status up in the air. Having the old-but-inexperienced Derek Day as the starter will make it an uphill battle for John Urschel and the PSU line to move around Hill and the Wahoo defense.

Just from looking at line play, it appears that Virginia has an advantage against the Lions on Saturday. The strength of Aboushi and Moses should force PSU defensive coordinator Ted Roof to get creative if he hopes to generate any pressure on Rocco. If that pressure doesn’t come, there’s a good chance Rocco will be able to make some plays against the Penn State secondary.

For Penn State to emerge victorious, they must stop the run and force Rocco to throw into coverage on 3rd-and-long. On offense, PSU probably won’t have much luck running, but a dearth of talent on Virginia’s defensive line could make an aerial assault viable. All that could change, though, if the freshman Harold is turned loose.

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