Even though he gave his players another three-day weekend to cap a second bye week, James Franklin has seen plenty to believe Penn State’s football team has improved despite doing less with another open week.
Physically, Franklin believes his starters and other game-day contributors are well rested and ready to continue their season against No. 13 Ohio State (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) at Beaver Stadium on Saturday at 8 p.m. More importantly, Franklin has seen and heard enough to think his players are mentally prepared — even eager — to go at a team that embarrassed them 63-14 last season in Columbus.
The text messages Franklin’s received from his players, some of them late at night, with ideas about game plans or how they can better contribute to help lift Penn State (4-2, 1-2) out of its two-game skid, have been nice touches.
After all, Franklin himself will fire off text after text is the earliest hours of the morning — to assistants, administrators and even to his other cell phone — so he won’t forget an idea he woke up with.
“I’ve really seen a shift in the last few days of guys really understanding what it’s going to take to be successful in our system,” Franklin said. “Guys taking ownership. Guys coming into my office and having really good meetings and asking really good questions and giving really good feedback. I think that’s been really, really important.”
Franklin has kept the message positive while the on-field results have taken a negative trajectory with Penn State’s most recent loss to Michigan.
The Nittany Lions have struggled to move the ball offensively in three of their last four games, rank 92nd in total offense and have allowed quarterback Christian Hackenberg to absorb 20 sacks.
“I think the biggest thing is I want our players and I want our fans and I want the community to feel really good about the direction and how we play,” Franklin said. “That’s the thing that’s important to me, that we come out and we play up to our abilities each week and we maximize that. I want people to be very, very comfortable with the direction of the program, where it’s going and how our guys are playing and the type of experience they’re having.”
Franklin is perfectly aware of his team’s issues and saw another one surface late against the Wolverines. Franklin said he believed his team wore down and “ran out of gas a little bit” in the second half at Michigan Stadium.
As a result, Franklin last week asked less of the 46 scholarship players who have played so far this season. Since players and coaches have reconvened, Franklin said he’s seen a rejuvenated bunch that has now experienced plenty of ups and downs in this season alone.
With six games remaining, Penn State isn’t completely out of contention for the Big Ten championship. But with Ohio State, Michigan State (6-1, 3-0), Maryland (5-2, 2-1) and Michigan (3-4, 1-2) all sitting atop the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten East standings, Penn State would have to run the table and get some outside help.
The Nittany Lions still have games against Maryland and No. 8 Michigan State left among their final five conference games.
“We’re still 4-2,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “We have a lot of season left and he just emphasizes some of the positive things and we’re going to get back on track. We have a lot of season left to turn this thing around.”
Dieffenbach’s status uncertain
Penn State’s offense appears to be on the verge of getting a much-needed boost, particularly up front where the Nittany Lions need the most help.
Senior captain Miles Dieffenbach, approaching the eight-month mark in his recovery from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), has been practicing with his teammates along the offensive line. His status for Saturday’s game is uncertain, however and Franklin did not say definitively whether Dieffenbach will play.
He did say that Penn State would love to have Dieffenbach back as soon as possible but hinted that Dieffenbach wouldn’t start in his first game back. Instead, Franklin said he’d like to see Dieffenbach play a series or two and then go from there.
When Dieffenbach is ready, he will likely return to his left guard spot where redshirt freshman Brendan Mahon currently plays. Dieffenbach, who started all 12 games at left guard last season, was practicing on the right side of the line before he was hurt in spring practice.
“I think the bye weeks were huge for him,” Franklin said. “If he’s ready this week, we would love to have him in there, because I do think having him next to Donovan is really valuable. Those guys have experience together, communicate extremely well together. We would love to have him.”
Lewis humbled by benching
With his helmet sitting a few feet away from where he stood behind Franklin, Geno Lewis was partially obscured by bigger teammates along Penn State’s sideline at Michigan Stadium two weeks ago.
This is where he started that game. Lewis finished it with just three catches for 17 yards and instead spent most of his time on the bench. It’s a feeling Lewis doesn’t want to experience again.
Franklin said there were multiple factors as to why Lewis didn’t see the field as much as usual and brought the sophomore receiver into his office for a sit down soon afterward. But Lewis said he was grateful for the learning opportunity and realized his focus hadn’t been where it need to be in practice.
“Me and coach, we just had a talk about basically the season, how it is going and we just wanted to get on the same page about how things are going,” Lewis said. “I know for myself, there are some things that I need to be more consistent with and we talked about it man-to-man and I think it went in a positive direction. I’m just ready to get back to where things were and keep things positive.”
It appears Lewis will see his usual workload on Saturday. Franklin said he expects Lewis “to have a big week and a real big second half of the season.”