Head coach James Franklin’s relationship with the surroundings of Penn State football is not without its squabbles or frustration.
The team is 4-1, he made sure to remind the media at his weekly press conference on Tuesday afternoon. There are just 40 other teams in the nation that boast that record. Penn State football is thus far undefeated at home in 2015, and has the “went 1-0 last week,” mentality.
But, it’s not the winning itself that’s exposing a certain amount of negativity, but how the winning was done. Penn State’s offense ranks in the dregs of the FBS, and wins against would-be-pushover teams like Buffalo and Army have come without a clear cohesiveness or identity among the unit.
“I’ll be honest with you, I had a fan send me a colorful, colorful tweet the other day,” Franklin said Tuesday. “and it went on and on and on … and I looked at it, and said ‘Don’t respond, don’t respond.’ And then, four hours later, I was scrolling, I looked at it again, I said ‘Don’t respond.’ ”
Franklin said the next day, he looked at it again, and decided to respond.
“I just said, ‘Tell me how that would help? Explain to me how that would help the situation we’re in, and make it better, I’m happy to do it,’ ” he said. Then, he said, that fan apologized.
Franklin’s point, in sharing that anecdote with media, is that he “gets” the external concern. And that the conversations he thinks are necessary to have, are being had.
Internally, of course.
“Having discussions every single morning at 7 a.m. at our staff meeting and just being really honest with each other and challenging each other, having conversations that I have throughout the day with staff, having conversations that I have (with people) who have been around Penn State for a long time ... we’re doing those things right,” he said.
He added, minutes later, “Do we need to get better on offense? Yes. There’s no doubt about it. Have we identified what those issues are and what we need to improve on? Yes. Are we working hard on them, every single day? Yes.”
But, college football and its culture, as well as society itself, he said, are all about instant gratification. Winning, winning well, winning now.
“I’ve been in the business long enough. I know the things that you need to do to be successful long-term and short-term, and we’re doing those things,” he said.
“... That’s the struggle in our climate of college football, now. The time frame and the timelines are different. And our society as a whole is different, immediate gratification.”
Franklin said what he loves the most about Penn State is the high expectations — “the expectation for greatness” — of the community.
“That’s the hardest part of my job,” he said. “How do you go out and get people really excited about the season, about the team, about the future, without setting up false expectations, at a place, that we’ve talked about before, the day the season starts, everybody remembers 1982 and 1986 and that’s their expectation?”
The issues are being addressed, he repeated.
And, just like with the angry fan on his Twitter feed, Franklin made it clear he’s not going to waste his time sharing publicly what those issues are. As he put it, he’s not going to “throw people under the bus.”
“Am I gonna come in here and tell you guys exactly what those things are? In my opinion? No!” he said. “If someone could explain to me how that helps our program … for me to come in and say, ‘This is a problem, this is a problem, this is a problem’… Do we have those conversations internally? Yes.
“I get the fans, I get the media, but I go to sleep every night feeling really good about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
Zettel speaks publicly for first time since father’s passing
Penn State senior defensive tackle Anthony Zettel spoke very candidly to media on Tuesday afternoon about the passing of his father, Terry, just two weeks ago.
“Me and my family went through a hard time,” he said, to the somber, silent media in attendance. “We still will. But I think when you have a group of guys in the locker room like I have, a group of guys at home, family, friends, that surround me with support, I think that really takes the edge off everything and makes me be able to fight through it.”
Terry passed after a long fight with cancer, on the Friday before Penn State hosted San Diego State at Beaver Stadium. Zettel had a career-best performance in the Nittany Lions’ win and earned Big Ten co-Defensive Player of the Week honors.
“It was an emotional little spurt there for me,” said Zettel. “But at the same time, my dad was with me, and that’s what he would want.
“When I would come home and he was going through chemo(therapy) sessions, he’d always be yellin’ at me to get back to college … So I think me not playing that game was not even a question, you know, I’m playing that game for him, no matter what.”
He said he felt more focused than he’d ever been during that game, and that he felt his dad was there for him every step of the way.
“I know that whatever I do in life, he’s with me,” he said.
Zettel also said he’d gotten thousands of letters from people offering their condolences and support.
Zettel’s teammate and close friend, linebacker Ben Kline, said that the team mourned with their senior captain.
But, Kline said, Zettel was the one who lifted them up.
“I think that anyone who is close with Anthony just takes a tremendous sense of pride in how he handled himself these past few weeks,” said Kline. “I think it’s been an incredibly difficult time for him, it’s been hard on a lot of us, his teammates, and he’s been stronger than anybody involved in the situation, and he’s been stronger than anyone would ever expect.”
Calling the game
Franklin mentioned on Tuesday that part of the reason the Nittany Lions make the play calls they do is to minimize the risk of turnovers.
“Turnover margin … I think that’s been critical to our success,” he said. Penn State is plus-8 in turnover margin and has recovered eight fumbles in five games, while losing just one, and quarterback Christian Hackenberg has thrown two interceptions. The team is tied for a No. 8 national ranking in turnover margin.
“We talked a few weeks ago about playing a style of play that was going to allow us to be successful, and we’ve done that. I think the turnovers have been huge,” he said.
Franklin was referring to his announcement that he’d be further involved on offense, after Penn State lost to Temple, to address issues on offense. Since, he has admitted to taking a bigger role.
“It goes back to what I said four weeks ago to you guys, that we were going to call the game in a style to allow us to be successful, to allow us to win,” he said. “Allow us to manage some of our issues … I said that four weeks ago, and that’s really kind of what we’re doing.”
Franklin did acknowledge that the team needs to be more aggressive on offense, especially this week, with upcoming opponent Indiana’s defensive tendency to load the box.
On third down, special attention, and possibly a bit more of that “aggression” Franklin mentioned, is especially necessary. Penn State ranks No. 120 out of 127 FBS teams with just a 30 percent success rate in converting third downs.
Freshman, freshman, freshman
Franklin was asked if he felt the team depended “too much” on true freshman running back Saquon Barkley, who has three rushing touchdowns and 386 yards in four games, as well as a receiving touchdown, which is 40 percent of Penn State’s total yards on the ground in five games, and 37.5 percent of rushing touchdowns.
Barkley was injured in the first half against San Diego State, as was starting junior back Akeel Lynch. Franklin is “hopeful” the two can return this week but said he remains uncertain of their availability.
Behind them are Nick Scott, Mark Allen and Jonathan Thomas, all of whom are freshmen and all of whom struggled to dent Army’s rush defense last week.
“Yeah, you know, I don’t know what else to do. You say I’m maybe getting too dependent on freshman runners, that’s all we got,” Franklin said. “That’s kind of where we are. So yeah, we are dependent.”
Depth chart in question
Noticeably missing from the Penn State depth chart this week were Barkley, Lynch, Brandon Bell and Marcus Allen’s names.
However, Franklin said on Tuesday that because of the unknown nature of the aforementioned players’ healing process and availability timeline, Penn State football’s Monday night depth charts moving forward would simply be a reflection of the players who saw action the Saturday prior.
Quotable: “He’s a Rhodes Scholar candidate, but no, he’s not really that sharp. He’s beating the system, he’s found a way to fool everybody,” Franklin joked, when asked about the intelligence of senior linebacker Ben Kline, who is indeed a Rhodes Scholarship candidate and, after almost 700 days lost due to injury, made his appearance on the field against Army, and on this week’s depth chart.