For all the team’s improvement since weeks one and two, Penn State’s most glaring issue has not showed much growth.
Through three games, the Nittany Lions (2-1) rank dead last in the country in fumbles with 12, and No. 124 in the country (out of 128 FBS teams) with six of those lost. Penn State’s three opponents have combined to score 35 points off turnovers.
The team is 90th in the country in turnover margin at minus-0.67, and quarterback Trace McSorley has a four-to-two touchdown to interception ration thus far, despite also boasting an above-average completion percentage of 64.4 with 828 passing yards already on the season.
And Big Ten play hasn’t even started yet.
Upcoming opponent, No. 4 Michigan (3-0), has forced four fumbles, had two interceptions and blocked three kicks to force a turnover in its first three games. The team will also likely return standout corner Jourdan Lewis from injury hiatus this week, who ranked third in the nation in passes defensed last year.
“We’ve got to hold on to the ball and be more ball secure,” said head coach James Franklin during his Tuesday afternoon presser. “That’s something that’s going to be very important to us, something we’ve done a fairly good job of in the past. And we need to make sure that we get back to doing that.”
The team runs through specific ball security drills each day in practice — the same as they’ve done since Franklin got here, he said Tuesday.
“We’ve got between six and nine drills that we do, and we typically have three stations,” he said. “Coach (Joe) Moorhead watches those stations and then the position coaches put them on and kind of rotate their guys through it.”
The drills are in five-minute blocks and vary between the “monkey-roll” drill, where players are forced to fall on the ball while hugging it to them, running through “gauntlets” of players attempting to punch out the ball, and tuck-and-run drills.
“It’s something that we’re going to focus on as a fundamental every single day,” he said. “Again, our process should not change week to week unless we’re not doing something that’s appropriate, and then we make changes and we learn and we adjust.
“But I think the biggest thing is fundamentals and techniques and having an awareness of how important the ball is.”
While the head coach tries not to emphasize the recent turnover issues “to the extreme” to avoid negative mental effects, the players themselves are certainly focused on them.
“Our focus as a team (during ball security drills) has been heightened,” said McSorley on Tuesday morning via conference call.
Running back Saquon Barkley said after last week’s practice that he watched his fumble against Pitt “more than 10 times” on film and is taking steps to prevent a repeat.
McSorley, on the other hand, wants to fix what he calls “mental mistakes” in terms of his own ball security in his first year as starting quarterback.
His interception against Temple last week, for example, was all mental on his part, he said.
“That play, I just rushed what I was doing,” he said. “I kind of saw (receiver DaeSean Hamilton) lean and try to stick (his coverage), get the defender to lean one way and then go the other way. I just rushed it. If I hadn’t, you know, waiting a half-second … I should’ve been able to anticipate it.
“I got to trust that he’s going to make his break when he’s supposed to. … The mistakes that we’re making are very correctable. Easy mental mistakes in our fundamentals that we’re doing, and that’s something that we can definitely clean up.”