When Penn State returned from Champaign, Ill. on Saturday night, James Franklin called the team’s seven captains into his office.
There, on the second floor of the Lasch Football Building, Franklin met with Mike Hull, Miles Dieffenbach, Jesse Della Valle, Sam Ficken, C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Keiser and Christian Hackenberg for “at least an hour.” Just hours removed from the toughest defeat of the season — a 16-14 loss to Illinois — Franklin wanted to pick the brains of the team’s most respected and revered players.
All of them seniors except for Hackenberg, these sorts of situations were why they were elected captains in the first place. The meeting, where Franklin and the captains discussed ways the team could improve not only on the field but in its day-to-day operations, was a positive jumping off point, Franklin said.
“You get frustrated or disappointed and you’re going through some challenges or adversity,” Franklin said. “As long as you’re surrounded with really good people that care and are committed, you can talk through it, you feel better. I know they made me feel better, gave me some perspective on some things, really valuable.”
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Saturday’s season finale against No. 10 Michigan State (9-2, 6-1 Big Ten) will be the final time a handful of seniors will play at Beaver Stadium. They know better than most that a win in that game will go a long way toward not only building momentum and confidence for the team’s eventual bowl appearance, but it will also end what has been an up-and-down regular season on a positive note.
They’ve been a part of season-ending wins against Wisconsin the last two years — games in which the Badgers were heavy favorites. Michigan State is currently listed as a 13-point favorite.
“The last two years we were big underdogs,” Hull said. “Came out on top both times. Just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Working hard every week, focusing on our fundamentals. Everything will take care of itself when we’re out there on Saturday.”
For Hull and the rest of Penn State’s defense, the Nittany Lions have done what they’ve needed to for much of the season. Penn State (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten) fields FBS’s top rushing defense and the Nittany Lions rank third nationally in total defense.
But 14 weeks into the season, Penn State is still looking for ways to move the ball consistently on offense.
Fans have been quick to pin all of the offensive deficiencies on offensive coordinator John Donovan. Meanwhile, Hackenberg hasn’t escaped criticism of the fan base either.
Franklin wouldn’t say whether he thought the criticism directed at his offensive coordinator was deserved on Tuesday. Instead, a multitude of issues have persisted and permeated the offense.
“I know everybody is looking to find answers and reasons,” Franklin said. “But did we have high expectations and standards of who and what we wanted to be? Yes. But am I also trying to be realistic going into the season of what it was? That as well.”
Penn State had shown glimpses of turning the corner recently after a long run of ineffectiveness dogged the offense. But after promising performances against Indiana and Temple, the offense’s inconsistent nature surfaced again against the Fighting Illini. Earlier this season, Donovan moved from the press box to the field to establish a better line of communication with Hackenberg.
But the quarterback was largely unprotected, had virtually no running game to lean on and was working with mostly green receivers to start the season. Many of the same problems still exist. The running game has only recently got going, pass protection has been a problem and as a result, the passing game hasn’t been nearly effective as last season.
All of these issues have snowballed at times, Franklin said. Hackenberg has been sacked 39 times and has thrown 14 interceptions with just eight touchdowns and hasn’t completed more than 50 percent of his passes since the Ohio State game.
Franklin realizes how easy it is to single out the quarterback, oftentimes the most visible position on the field.
“The question always went back to Christian Hackenberg,” Franklin said. “I kept bringing up to you guys it was going to be about surrounding Christian. So really, you keep asking me, but the answer’s not going to change. I understand it. We’re going to evaluate everything, and I understand the disappointment. But the answer is really not going to change.”
He’s hoping the results on the field will.
Franklin said losing Dieffenbach largely stunted the development of the team’s offensive line in the early going. But a group that got Dieffenbach back in time for the Indiana game and features two defensive line converts, has improved, Franklin said. Penn State has had a 100-plus yard rusher in each of its last three games.
But week-to-week consistency has been a problem. Dieffenbach eluded to this when he met with reporters following the Illinois loss.
“Obviously you want to see improvement every single week an that’s something that we’re doing,” Dieffenbach said. “And that’s positive. As an offensive line, we’re getting better execution, putting hats on hats.”
One more test awaits before the team can take a longer evaluation.
NOTES: Keiser, still on the mend from multiple surgeries to repair a torn bowel, is expected to stay with the team at its hotel on Friday and will be at Beaver Stadium on Saturday. ... Franklin said he’s hopeful to have cornerback Christian Campbell and running back Bill Belton back after both left the Illinois game with injuries. Team doctors will make the final call on their availabilities, however. ... Linebacker Brandon Bell is also questionable for the regular season finale. He did not play against Illinois with a suspected shoulder injury.