Here’s how James Franklin sees things: He’s not going to wave a white flag, just because he’s down four touchdowns late in the fourth quarter against the No. 1 team in the nation.
And he’ll show it by not removing his starting players from that type of situation.
The Penn State head coach received criticism for leaving quarterback Christian Hackenberg in the game late against the nation’s top-ranked team, Ohio State, despite the 28-point Buckeyes lead. He did so in light of an obvious limp sported by Hackenberg after the junior landed hard on his hip earlier in the game. Penn State’s top two running backs, Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch, also took reps late (Barkley stayed in throughout) despite only just returning to the field Saturday night after recovering from injuries suffered against San Diego State.
Barkley, a true freshman, is clearly a player in whom Penn State places much future stock. So, to see the running back, who rushed for 194 yards on 26 carries, still in the game against Ohio State’s starting defensive line despite not having the starting offensive guards in much of the second half, drew criticism from media and fans alike.
Franklin addressed those concerns on Tuesday afternoon.
“I think you guys are going to see that over time, that our staff and our players, and me specifically, are really, really competitive,” he said. “And I think it’s hard to put your backups in the game before the game is over, it’s almost like waving a white flag. And that’s not who I am, or who we will be. We’re going to fight until the last play of the game.”
Franklin said he understands why there is criticism or concern about the matter, and he recognizes that there is a “fine line” in deciding when the backups come in. He said he asked doctors, trainers and the players themselves whether they were OK to remain in the game, and they said “they were good.”
“What I’m telling you is, it’s hard, as a competitor, to say ‘I’m going to put the backups in at this point in the game and wave the white flag,’ ” he said. “That’s not who I am, or ever really will be, but I also understand, I get what people are saying.
“My approach and my demeanor, it’s going to be hard for me until the final whistle blows, to not be doing everything in our power to fight to win the game.”
Clarifying, then re-clarifying on offense
Last week, offensive coordinator John Donovan addressed the media for the first time since the end of fall camp.
Donovan was asked what Franklin’s level of involvement was in the offense, after the latter said he’d take a “deeper role” in the unit after a season-opening loss to Temple, and said the same in the following weeks.
“He’s involved in every single aspect of this program. He’ll give suggestions to everybody. He’s the head coach so he can do that. It’s been the same routine for the last five years or so,” Donovan said. When asked to clarify whether that meant Franklin was indeed taking a bigger role, or that things have in fact stayed the same in the half-decade, the offensive coordinator responded, “He has got the deepest role in every role in this program. He couldn’t be more deep. Offense, defense, special teams, administration, recruiting, you name it. That’s what he does. He’s full-on attack mode. And that’s one of his best strengths.”
On Tuesday, Franklin was asked to further clarify that statement — is he actually calling plays? What is his involvement now, after touting its increase for weeks?
“I think John’s point is a great point,” he said. “There’s not an aspect of this program where I’m just sitting back and letting it happen.
“Since the Temple game, did I get more involved on game day? Yes. Have I done that? Yes. The challenging part, and I know some people do it differently, but when you’re trying to be the CEO of the entire program, and there is academic responsibilities, there’s offense, defense, special teams, there’s all the other things that we’re responsible for ... I’ve never been around anyone that has been the head coach and also one of the coordinators when you’re constantly being pulled out for something.”
Franklin said he “wouldn’t say” he’s involved more in specific playcalling, per se, but he has been “involved on game days in saying, ‘Run now, pass now, move the pocket ...’ I’ve made more stronger suggestions here recently.
“I wouldn’t say playcalling, I’d say more about what we’re doing, (like) we need to run the ball right now, we need to throw the ball right now, we need to move the pocket, those types of things.”
Special teams need special attention
After a woeful performance by Penn State punters Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello on Saturday night, and inconsistent play throughout the year, Franklin mentioned, postgame, that he considered even having open tryouts for a new punter to rectify the “major” problem.
He said on Tuesday that the idea had been discussed in his meeting with the special teams coordinators and assistants that morning, but it seems unlikely to come to fruition.
“I think at the end of the discussion that we had, we got two guys that have showed the ability to do it in practice, and do it pretty consistently,” he said. “We gotta get them to translate that to the game. And comparing game situations last year to game situations this year, those things haven’t translated … it’s not a physical thing, it’s a mental thing. It’s confidence.”
In this Saturday’s matchup against Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore at 3:30 p.m., the Nittany Lions will face one of the best returners in the country in William Likely. The junior, who also plays cornerback, has a nation-best 665 return yards and averages 22 yards per punt return, alongside two touchdowns.
When Penn State’s punting struggled last season, a quick fix was to allow the punters to simply boot it as far as they could, and in turn leave the shifts and pressure for field position to the coverage unit.
“I don’t think that this week will be the week to do it, with Likely,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is leave the ball in the middle of the field with 53-and-a-third for the guy to work with. I do think that’s something we’ve discussed, about obviously taking some of that pressure off them and allowing (the punter) to just bang it down the field. … I don’t think this is the week to do that considering the impact that Likely has had in games.”
Franklin responds to Narduzzi comments
On Monday, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi made comments that many took as directed toward Penn State, during his weekly press conference (transcripts of which can be found online at the school’s athletics site).
Narduzzi was speaking about the performance of his quarterback, Nathan Peterman, when the comments were made.
“He’s one of the most accurate quarterbacks I’ve been around. It is playcalling? Yeah, of course. You could have a talented quarterback with a bad play caller and make him look bad,” he said. “You see that around the country, some closer than others.”
Franklin was asked about his thoughts on Narduzzi’s comments on Tuesday.
“I don’t want to read into anything,” he said. “There’s been comments and things that I’ve said in the past that people have read into. So I’m not going to read into anything. Happy for them, and the success that they’ve had, but my focus is on Penn State completely.
“I don’t like back-and-forth. Me and Herb Hand had a conversation a few months ago to stop that ... I’ve said this before, I’ve got tremendous respect for all the universities in the state.”
Quotable: “(Gestures toward media member) Me and you in the offseason, we’re going to play a pickup basketball game. Me and you. You and your buddies in this room, and my staff. And it’s going to be fun. You bring your camera ... I’m going to tell you, whether you’re up by eight, or it’s even, I’m gonna come after you. And that’s just who I am,” Franklin said, when speaking about his mentality toward leaving starters in when the game is out of reach.