James Franklin began his press conference in a rather unorthodox fashion on Tuesday.
The Penn State coach strolled into the Beaver Stadium media room, birthday cake in hand and tracked down Fran Fisher, who was seated near the back of the gallery. Franklin immediately burst into his rendition of Happy Birthday, the 91st time it’s been sung to the longtime Penn State broadcaster.
And before Franklin went into his usual mid-week scouting report on Penn State’s upcoming opponent, Northwestern, he wanted to say a few words to the legendary voice of Penn State football. Fisher started at Penn State in 1966 and held a multitude of posts, including his most well-known role as the football team’s play-by-play announcer from 1970 to 1983 and again for five more seasons into the late 1990s.
He was also the voice of Penn State basketball from 1976-83.
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“I’d like to start by wishing happy birthday to Fran Fisher, a legend when it comes to Penn State athletics, a legend when it comes to this community and he’s earned it,” Franklin said.
After Franklin and roughly 30 members of the media wrapped Happy Birthday, Fisher extended his hand to Franklin, whose Nittany Lions are unbeaten a third of the way through the season, and said simply:
“Happy 4-0 to you, sir,”
Going 4-0 to start a career hasn’t been easy for Penn State coaches.
Franklin is the first since Dick Harlow did in his first season in 1915. Harlow went 5-0 to start while six coaches after that failed to win their fourth games. Franklin will get a shot at win number five and Penn State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) can get one game closer to being bowl eligible with a noon game against Northwestern (1-2) up next. The Wildcats will begin conference play at Beaver Stadium while Penn State will play its first of two cross-divisional games on Saturday.
The Wildcats are ranked last in the Big Ten West Division while Penn State sits atop the Big Ten East standings. And Penn State is coming off its biggest offensive output of the season.
The Nittany Lions finally got their ground game going and rushed for 228 yards and five touchdowns in a 48-7 win over Massachusetts on Saturday.
“To me, the really exciting part about the win is we still have a lot of room for growth and the ability to get better,” Franklin said.
They’ll have the chance to do so against a team that has been down since the midpoint of last season.
Northwestern has lost nine of its last 11 games and went 1-7 against conference foes last season. The Wildcats haven’t beaten Penn State since Pat Fitzgerald took over in 2006 and Penn State has won five meetings in that span and six straight against Northwestern.
Fitzgerald does have some success against Franklin, however. When Franklin was at Vanderbilt, the Commodores traveled to Evanston, Ill., where the Wildcats won 23-13 in 2012.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that having history with people, with teams, with coaching staffs, with players and things like that, there comes a little bit of a comfort level there or an understanding,” Franklin said. “I don’t know if one game really does that, but it’s better than none.”
As running back Bill Belton said after the UMass win, Penn State must build on its one-game success running the football against the Minutemen. Franklin still sees plenty of room for improvement in that area, too.
Primarily, Franklin wants offensive protections and footwork to be better across the board. In addition, Franklin wants his defensive backs to communicate better as there were times in the UMass game where he saw safeties and cornerbacks not on the same page, leaving the possiblity for big plays. UMass didn’t hit them, however.
“There (were) a few times during the game we didn’t get caught but where the corner was playing cover 2 and the safety was rolling back to the middle of the field to play cover 3, that could have been a huge play,” Franklin said. “So we’ve just got to make sure we’re coordinated there.”
That goes for playing by the rulebook, too.
Penn State is on track to commit 69 penalties, a total that would put the Nittany Lions among the five most-penalized teams in the Big Ten using 2013 totals as a measuring point. Penn State committed 55 infractions last season.
Like most coaches, Franklin has been encouraging referees who work Penn State’s practices to be quick to throw flags and explain calls to his players.
Most of Penn State’s miscues, 14 of 23, have come on offense.
“Too many on offense,” Franklin said. “Right now, the penalties on offense have been drive killers. So we need to clean those up.”