Three days after his team lost a chippy, ugly game against Maryland, James Franklin appeared unaffected by the doom and gloom emanating in the wake of Penn State’s four-game losing skid, the worst slide for the Nittany Lions since 2004.
After all, they have a chance to snap out of it on Saturday at Indiana.
The ever-positive coach began his weekly press conference with a smile. He praised his players and staff, reveled over the warm, sunny weather and expressed thankfulness to be the head coach at Penn State.
“Excited about getting out to practice today and getting better and continuing to work with these guys,” Franklin said. “Got a tremendous opportunity. Myself, the staff, the players are more determined and more optimistic than we’ve ever been.”
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But Franklin has found himself answering many of the same questions week after week as his Nittany Lions (4-4, 1-4 Big Ten) have struggled with the same problems — inabilities to run the ball, protect the quarterback and flip the field position.
In the last four games, Penn State has allowed 20 sacks, rushed for just 2.6 yards per carry even without sacks factored in, and is starting its drives at about its own 25.
Now, Franklin is answering for his quarterback’s apparent frustration with the lack of progress.
Sophomore signal-caller Christian Hackenberg was visibly frustrated on Saturday and was involved in multiple heated discussions with offensive coordinator John Donovan. Franklin said he met with his quarterback in an attempt to get on the same page. According to the Nittany Lions’ coach, that meeting was productive.
Franklin said Hackenberg wants to take a more active leadership role on the field as a result.
“(We) discussed a wide variety of topics,” Franklin said. “It’s been a transition for him, really, from the last couple of years through the recruiting process and everything. I think he’s handling it well. There are areas that I think he can handle better, and we discussed those honestly in both directions.”
Hackenberg is not scheduled to speak with reporters this week.
“We have to remember, all of us, that he’s a true sophomore,” Franklin said. “And he’s out there on the field as our offensive captain with our other captain, Miles Dieffenbach being out all year long. So I think he’s handling it well, considering he’s a 19-year-old true sophomore with a lot of external things going on.”
Status for Dieffenbach, Smith still up in air
Franklin admitted that a month ago he thought Dieffenbach would’ve played last week.
But the team’s most experienced offensive lineman didn’t suit up against Ohio State and was again in a polo shirt on the sidelines for the Maryland game. Although Dieffenbach has been practicing for weeks now, team trainers have not given him the green light to participate in games.
Franklin said there is a chance Dieffenbach could play this week but said it would be up to the trainers and Dieffenbach himself.
“We’re hopeful that maybe we’ll get him this week,” Franklin said. “But, again, that’s not necessarily my call.”
Smith left the Ohio State game with an apparent head injury and was not on the sideline for the Maryland game. Franklin said he’s hopeful Smith will be cleared to play on Saturday but that call has not yet been made.
Ficken won’t punt
Sam Ficken experimented with punting in the spring but you won’t see Penn State’s place kicker lined up deep to do so anytime soon.
Although Penn State’s tandem of Daniel Pasquariello and Chris Gulla have struggled this season, combining for FBS’s worst per-punt average (35.8 yards), Penn State coaches will continue to rely on them and hope they improve. Pasquariello handled punting duties against Maryland and posted the team’s highest average (36.8) since the Massachusetts game.
Gulla and Pasquariello have been observed booming punts in practice but haven’t fared nearly as well in games.
“We have complete faith in our two guys,” Ficken said. “They’re working to get better. They’re right there. They’re on the precipice of being really good. We’ve seen it in practice. It just needs to translate over to games.”
Keiser resting, improving
Franklin offered a brief update on Ryan Keiser, saying the senior safety is “doing extremely well” in his recovery from surgery.
Keiser, who suffered a broken rib and torn bowel and required hospitalization and multiple surgeries two weeks ago, is brought up in every staff meeting early in the morning, Franklin said. Penn State’s head athletic trainer Tim Bream made a trip to see Keiser on Monday while a few teammates have texted him, Jesse Della Valle said.
“From everything I’m hearing and everything I know he’s doing great,” Franklin said. “One of the things I tried to be careful with as our team, I want them to reach out to him and let him know how much we love and care about him and support him and we’re here for him. But on the same hand, he needs his rest. He doesn’t need his phone buzzing and ringing all day long as well.”