James Franklin knows what’s been said about himself, his players, Penn State’s coaching staff and the program the past few days. He’s seen the columns and concerns expressed by media members, and he’s heard the complaints lodged by fans.
After faltering at Ohio Stadium — after squandering a 15-point lead and losing 39-38 to the Buckeyes on Saturday — there was no ignoring it. His Twitter mentions alone were ablaze late Saturday night and into Sunday morning.
Franklin spent 44 minutes in the Beaver Stadium media room on Tuesday afternoon taking it all on the chin.
But he made one thing perfectly clear: The Nittany Lions are still a top-ranked team with a chance at the College Football Playoff — and they’re not freaking out. They haven’t given up.
“We’re not panicking right here. There are issues that need to be addressed, and I promise you they are being addressed and being worked on,” Franklin said. “But we’re not going to hit panic mode because we lost on the road to the No. 6-ranked team in the country by one point.
“Do we need to finish better? Yes. Do I take responsibility? No doubt. Do I have tough conversations with my staff about stuff we need to get better about? Yes. Do I challenge the players to take a hard look at themselves and grow in this program? Yeah. But I am going to stay positive and work on our challenges and our issues every week no matter what the results are. We’ve got one of the most explosive offenses in the country, and we have areas to get better. We have one of the better defenses in the country; we have areas to get better. We have one of the more successful special teams programs in the country; we have areas we need to get better. I just want everyone to understand clearly that we recognize them and we are going to work on them as hard as we possibly can to give us the best chance to be successful this week against Michigan State.”
That was the tone and topic of Franklin’s first post-loss regular-season press conference since Sept. 27, 2016.
Of the 20 questions he was asked on Tuesday, 17 were in reference to the Ohio State loss, underlying issues exposed and the Nittany Lions’ ability to bounce back. The other three inquiries were about defensive end Shaka Toney, Halloween and the “unique” Land Grant Trophy.
Franklin spent seven minutes in his opening statement addressing the heartbreaker in Columbus, saying Penn State needs to develop a “finisher’s mentality” and again emphasizing that his team hasn’t dealt with “sudden change” well.
He also reiterated that, yes, he and the Nittany Lions will keep their heads held high.
“People may not like what I’m going to say,” Franklin added, “but I’m going to stay positive, and progress is still being made.”
Still, there are areas of admitted concern.
On offense, the Nittany Lions need to eliminate runs of negative yardage. Saquon Barkley was stopped behind the line of scrimmage nine times on Saturday; eight of those runs came in the second half. Penn State’s offensive line has to protect quarterback Trace McSorley better, as well. McSorley was sacked twice and rushed out of the pocket with no time and nowhere to throw countless times. The redshirt junior has been sacked 18 times in the last five games.
Simply put, the Nittany Lions couldn’t protect McSorley or block for Barkley. That’s a problem, especially in the much-maligned four-minute offense.
On the other side of the ball, a shoddy run defense and pass rush plagued Penn State on Saturday. As a result, so did the secondary’s inability to cover Ohio State’s athletes in space. J.T. Barrett had himself a field day.
Without getting into details, Franklin expressed confidence that he, Joe Moorhead, Brent Pry, the rest of the staff and Penn State’s players will get it all figured out. Players have taken initiative, as well.
Barkley, McSorley and Jason Cabinda decided it was necessary to hold a players-only meeting on Sunday. The gathering was brief but effective.
“We just felt like there were some things we had to kind of get off our chest,” Cabinda said. “Making sure the mentality of the team was the same, and we were still taking the same approach. Knowing there’s a ton of football left, a lot still left to be accomplished.”
Penn State’s shortcomings at Ohio State were the topic of conversation Tuesday. But Franklin and the team has moved on, understandably so.
“We should have finished. We did not,” Franklin said. “The best teams in the country have issues that they need to work on and get better — and we’re one of those teams.”