As he’s done the previous two weeks, James Franklin began his Tuesday press conference with an informative presentation.
The Penn State football coach strolled into the Beaver Stadium media room with a stack of papers and an orange Gatorade. Franklin paused to take a few sips while going through his notes — detailed observations about his team’s upcoming opponent and a full progress report on Penn State’s most recent win over Rutgers.
Franklin, who describes himself as an optimist, doesn’t shy away from taking a realistic approach. He knows — and the video evidence shows — three games into the season, the Nittany Lions (3-0, 1-0) have plenty to improve on with a 4 p.m. game against Massachussetts (0-3) up next. Primarily, Franklin has identified deficiencies along his offensive line.
Holes for running backs were few or nonexistent on Saturday and gaps for Rutgers defenders looking to take a run at quarterback Christian Hackenberg were spacious and plentiful. Hackenberg was sacked five times, hurried eight times and hit a number more in Penn State’s 13-10 win on Saturday in Piscataway.
At some point, Franklin expects his offensive line — which has four new starters alongside returning left tackle Donovan Smith — will begin to jell and play better as a unit.
“I think, you know, as fans and as coaches and as players, we’d all like it to happen faster,” Franklin said. “But those things take time, and I did see improvement. You’re watching the tape and I did see improvement this past week. We’ve still got a ways to go. But they are doing a good job of that.”
So far, the Nittany Lions haven’t managed much offense on the ground.
Penn State ranks 120th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams with 75.7 rushing yards per game. Partially as a result, the Nittany Lions have fielded a pass-heavy attack, opting to throw the ball 58 percent of the time.
Franklin hasn’t necessarily seen his new starting offensive linemen — center Angelo Mangiro, guards Brian Gaia and Brendan Mahon and tackle Andrew Nelson — get physically outmatched. Rather, a combination of communication mistakes and inexperience have bogged their development to becoming a fluid, efficient unit.
“That deals with really being confident and brave to make a call,” Franklin said. “Because what happens is, if you’re the tight end and tackle working together or the center and guard working together, or the back side guard and tackle working together, usually the first person to make a call, then it affects everybody else’s call from that point on and who they are working to.
“A lot of times when you have a young, inexperienced line, they don’t want to make the call, because if someone makes the call and it’s the wrong call, then there’s someone to blame. And I don’t want them to approach it that way. I want them to make a decision. They think it’s the right decision for the team and move on; if we make a mistake, we learn from it.”
Franklin is hoping to get more out of his rushing game and will continue to try to give the offensive line some help. Penn State has used tight ends Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Brent Wilkerson as blockers out of the backfield in addition to lining up on the line of scrimmage where they would be typically.
Guard Derek Dowrey has also been used as a fullback of sorts.
“We practice a lot with the offensive line,” James said. “Every day we have some type of drill going on, inside run stuff, or just on the fly. Working with the offensive line, blocking guys, so we need to work with each other as much as possible to get the run game going on.”
Penn State could have an opportunity to jump-start its running game and boost the offensive line’s confidence on Saturday.
UMass, which uses a 3-4 base defense, has fielded a porous defense so far. The Minutemen are allowing 218 rushing yards per game and have allowed two rushing touchdowns in each of their first three games.
“It’s going to take some time,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to do it in practice over and over and over and over again. They have got to trust one another and they have got to be willing to communicate and work together, and make sure that that information gets communicated from the front side tight end all the way to the back side tight end or tackle, depending on the formation.”