After a decisive 29-7 win over Indiana last week, Penn State football’s offensive coordinator, John Donovan, was made available to speak to media on Thursday morning via teleconference, days before the team heads to Columbus to take on No. 1 Ohio State.
Donovan has been hit with a large amount of criticism throughout the Nittany Lions’ season, after a season-opening loss to Temple and a few narrow wins scraped together over teams like Buffalo and Army. Despite a five-game win streak and 5-1 record, Penn State’s total offense ranks No. 103 in the nation out of 127 FBS teams, and has a third down conversion rate of just 30 percent. Additionally, the team has scored just 13 points in combined third quarters through six games this season.
Question: John, with this offense ranked No. 103 in the FBS, are you surprised with the way things have gone so far for this group this season? And why do you think the overall production hasn’t been there?
Answer: “You know, we’ve produced enough to win five games in a row. And that’s what we’re focused on each and every week, is to do what we have to do to win. So, if we can do that again this weekend, we’ll be happy.”
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Q: At the beginning of the season, (head coach James) Franklin mentioned that he was going to become more involved in the offense, and week to week he’s said he’s been doing so. Are you able to go into any of the specifics of how he’s been more involved?
A: “He’s involved in every aspect of this program, whether it’s football, recruiting, administration, whatever it is, he’s involved in every aspect and it’s always going to be like that.”
Q: How has James’ level of involvement, you know, with the playcalling and the offense in general, compare to the past few years that you’ve worked with him?
A: “Like I said, 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.”
Q: I just want to clarify here…Franklin has been saying, for the past few weeks, that he has been more involved and taking a bigger role in the offense. I believe you mentioned a few minutes ago that things are the same as they have been the last five years, I just want to clarify that statement, so he is not in fact taking a deeper role in the offense than he has done in the past?
A: “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. And we’ve been very successful, and we’re on a roll right now. So hopefully if we play the way we can this weekend, have poise, have communication, hopefully we’ll get a win.”
Q: I was wondering if you could assess where you see improvement from the beginning of the season to now?
A: “You know, it just comes like everything else, it comes with experience and with playing time and all that. We’ve made some big plays, which have helped, we’ve helped ourselves with the running game, and week to week you just try to find whatever you can do to win, and we’ve been able to do that here the last few weeks.”
Q: The opener against Temple led to some changes within the offense and the philosophy. From your perspective, what were some of the more significant or notable alterations?
A: “You know, you just try to study your opponent, and study yourselves, and try to win the game each and every week. And that’s the plan, and when you (execute) that plan for real, you’re able to see who you are a little bit better. And we’ve been able to do that and get victories these last few weeks.”
Q: A couple of weeks ago, (tight end) Mike Gesicki said he was aware of some of the criticisms of him on social media earlier in the season, and kind of used that as a motivator. I wonder if you pay attention to any of that, and does it have any impact on you?
A: “No. I don’t. You know, I stay in my bubble here, and I try to worry about week to week, who we’re playing, and I don’t want to get involved in anything that could be a distraction to the kids or us, so it’s not going to help either way. The only thing that’s going to help is putting the time in, studying the opponent, studying ourselves, and trying to find a way to win.”
Q: Is the criticism of you fair? Do you think that people have, maybe, an unfair view of the job you’ve done so far?
A: “I couldn’t tell you, to be honest. I know we’re 5-1, and we’re looking to play this week and have a good outing, we’ve got a tough challenge, Ohio State is great, and we’ll be on the road so that’ll be a new thing for us, so we’re just looking forward to this week and hopefully getting a win out of it.”
Q: Through six games, your third down conversion rating still hovers around 30 percent, which is one of the worst in the country. What’s been wrong, and what can you do to fix it?
A: “I’d say the biggest thing there is too many third-and-longs, got to stay out of those, get ourselves more manageable third downs. Not many people can convert third-and-longs, so we need to be able to stay out of those and that’ll give (us) a better chance to convert them.”
Q: Has the playbook been limited at all? Is it growing a little every week, and is it close to 100 percent now?
A: “I think we’re doing a great job of mixing things up, and I think we’re doing more than we’ve ever done at this point, so hopefully we’ll be able to keep doing that, and each week find ways to run a lot of similar stuff and do it different ways, and come up with new things every week and be able to handle it.”
Q: You’ve had some success with that sweep package, you’ve had (receiver Brandon) Polk coming in motion, and now adding new wrinkles week to week. What are the keys to kind of roping the defense in like that, showing them something they’ve seen on film and then switching it up and trying to catch them off guard?
A: “Yeah, it’s a form of misdirection. Any time you can play with someone’s eyes and not let them get locked in all the time. … That definitely helps. And that’s just sort of a misdirection play, we can do several things off of it. It keeps people honest, and makes them respect everything about it.”