Shortly after his team snapped its four-game losing streak last weekend, Christian Hackenberg made it a point to express his desire to send Penn State’s senior class out with a bowl-game win this season.
Now, Penn State (5-4, 2-4 Big Ten) is a win away from earning that chance. The Nittany Lions will try to do so against Temple (5-4, 3-3 American Athletic Conference) — a team that will be playing for the same distinction — when the Owls visit Beaver Stadium for a noon kickoff Saturday.
But Penn State coach James Franklin isn’t talking about what is at stake on Saturday quite yet.
“We don’t talk about those things. We don’t look at those things,” Franklin said. “We focus on finding a way to beat Temple this week. At the end of the year if someone calls and tells us we have an opportunity to go somewhere, wherever it is, we’ll be excited and fired up about it. Because for us, it’s about keeping the family together as long as we possibly can.”
The Nittany Lions could get one member of the family back while another one figures to play a bigger role than he did against Indiana.
Junior offensive tackle Donovan Smith is listed on the team’s depth chart as the potential starter at left tackle and Franklin spoke in hopeful tones that the Nittany Lions would have their big lineman back. Smith hasn’t played since he had to leave the Ohio State game in the second half with a suspected concussion. Per his policy on injuries, Franklin has not made Smith’s ailment public and Smith was not seen at the last two practices open to reporters. He did not travel with the team to Bloomington last week. Smith did not practice on Sunday and Franklin said Smith would have to get meaningful reps in practice in order to play in Saturday’s game.
Meanwhile, senior guard Miles Dieffenbach made his long anticipated return from a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) against Indiana. Dieffenbach, who was injured in March, played 10 snaps and said he’s expecting a bigger workload against the Owls.
“I’m definitely hoping to get some more action in there,” Dieffenbach said. “We’ll see how the game goes, but I definitely plan on getting some more.”
Dieffenbach played both left and right guard against the Hoosiers but Penn State coaches envision him next to Smith on the left side of the line in an ideal situation.
Franklin reiterated that the plan with Dieffenbach was to work him in gradually. Between series, Dieffenbach could be seen riding a stationary bike on the sideline at Memorial Stadium.
“Donovan was our only returning starter with any starting game experience coming into the season,” Franklin said. “Being able to have him and Miles is exciting just from an experience and leadership standpoint if nothing else. But I thought overall (Dieffenbach) did some nice things.”
And Dieffenbach is one of those seniors Hackenberg spoke of finishing the season strongly for.
This season has been unique in a few ways for the Nittany Lions, one of them being a senior class that is smaller than the true freshmen group. Penn State has five fifth-year seniors — defensive end Brad Bars, safety Jesse Della Valle, linebacker Mike Hull, running back Zach Zwinak and Dieffenbach — on its roster with just six true seniors, safeties Adrian Amos and Ryan Keiser, running back Bill Belton, kicker Sam Ficken and defensive linemen C.J. Olaniyan and Tyrone Smith to fill out the senior class.
Keiser and Zwinak are out for the year with injuries and not counting Dieffenbach’s limited on-field contributions to this point, Penn State has played more true freshmen (nine) than seniors (eight) over the past few weeks.
The numbers aren’t lost on Franklin. And the impact the senior class has had hasn’t been either.
“I would say in a lot of ways (the seniors have had) maybe even a stronger impact,” Franklin said. “Don’t get me wrong, we’d love to have 30 seniors right now, but when you don’t have 30, the few that you have, have to have really strong voices. We’ve been fortunate to have that. Where it’s been magnified is we have some guys that haven’t been with us.
“Not having Keiser in the last couple of weeks, his leadership has been unbelievable, not having Dieffenbach all year long. So I actually think it makes their role even more important than if you had 30 because you can kind of spread the wealth a little bit there.”