Addressing reporters in advance of Penn State’s matchup at Northwestern this weekend, James Franklin was asked to describe the areas in which his team’s offensive line could make improvements.
The Nittany Lions' head coach, having already defended his team’s 5-0 start and its performance while tiptoeing around some of the areas that have been cause for consternation among the Penn State faithful, dived in headfirst.
“I think the biggest thing is finishing,” Franklin began. “I think for the most part, we're in good position and for the most part, our fundamentals and techniques have been good. There's a few plays where I think, you know, our inexperience has shown up a little bit at times.”
He wasn’t only referring to the offensive line.
While the question sought an acknowledgement that the Nittany Lions have had their share of struggles in the trenches against opponents determined to shut down star running back Saquon Barkley, Franklin was himself determined to draw attention to the many ways his team is still evolving.
Along the offensive line, he said, players have mostly found the correct man and have been in the correct positions to make plays. Just a half second more of blocking, Franklin said, could have been the difference between a short carry and a touchdown run on numerous occasions through the first five games of the season.
“I think that's the biggest difference for us right now is straining and finishing blocks. Are there some times where the defense makes a great call and they get us for a tackle for a loss or something like that or a zero-yardage play?” Franklin asked. “Yeah, that's going to happen. But for us, I think the biggest difference for us is just straining a little bit longer. Finishing blocks from an aggressive demeanor, from an aggressive perspective.
“That's the next step for us. Instead of just being content with covering my guy up, let's create a little bit more space. Let's grind, let's strain, let's finish a little bit more. I think I could say that about the O-Line and I could say that about every position.”
Seemingly across the board, the Nittany Lions are performing at a high level, with an attached perception that things could be at least a little bit better, given the expectations that accompanied the start of the season and remain in tact.
The Lions’ scoring defense is ranked third nationally, giving up just 9.4 points per game, and has yet to allow 20 points to any opponent all season. Boasting a No. 5-ranked 8.8 team tackles for loss per game, the Lions are also No. 3 nationally for turnovers gained (14) and No. 13 for total defense.
Still, Indiana’s 352 yards of total offense and 19 first downs, Iowa’s explosive play touchdowns, Pitt’s shovel pass success, and a 35.7 percent conversion rates for opponents on third downs have all created questions.
On special teams, the Nittany Lions have been inarguably dangerous, turning out 14 points in the first quarter alone last week, springing DeAndre Thompkins for a punt return touchdown in the opener, securing incredibly tight field position wins with Blake Gillikin, and kickoff return coverage that has been consistent.
Still, Tyler Davis’ hit-and-miss five field goals made on 11 attempts have led to justified concern at the senior placekicker’s reliability when crunch time eventually comes.
On the offensive side of the ball, Penn State is No. 14 in scoring with 41.4 points per game, has the No. 25 passing game, has turned the ball over just five times, the Lions have an astounding 73-0 advantage in the first quarter of games this year, as well as 51-3 in the third quarter, and features arguably college football’s most electric player in running back Saquon Barkley.
And yet the Nittany Lion offense, to the eye test for many, has not matched the proficiency that defined its second half to the 2016 season.
Their third-down conversion rate is No. 95 in the country, the running game is averaging just 179 yards per game (No. 58), they’ve allowed a whopping 7.6 tackles for loss per game (No. 114), and maybe most concerning to some, 52- and 56-point shutouts against Akron and Georgia State have likely skewed the numbers at least marginally.
Confident that his program can take the steps forward necessary, however small they might be in separating the Lions from where he'd like them to be, Franklin continues to see a group with an underappreciated quality.
In fact, this Penn State team is one that has an ingredient every team, everywhere, is looking for in its wide variety of avenues available toward earning a win week-in and week-out.
Offensively, Barkley is the Lions’ leading receiver, but DaeSean Hamilton exploded for a big afternoon against Indiana with three touchdowns, tight end Mike Gesicki is a constant mismatch, Juwan Johnson made the catch of the year to earn a walk-off win at Iowa, Saeed Blacknall’s remained patient and even backup QB Tommy Stevens has four receptions and a touchdown. Barkley has been the overwhelming force in the running game, but Miles Sanders’ six attempts have been good for 10.5 yards per carry, Andre Robinson has a touchdown, and the threat of all three in the passing game doubles up the potential.
Understanding the role opponents' efforts play in how a game unfolds, as well as the reality of every team's inability to cook up a perfect performance each week, Franklin still sees a generous set of options toward reaching the team's goals.
“I think that's one of the things that's exciting about us right now is I know everybody would love for us just to line up and smash it down people's throats but that's not how we're built,” said Franklin. “When the opportunity is there to run the ball effectively, we're going to do that. When the opportunity is there to throw the ball to our wide receivers or to our tight ends or to Saquon, we're going to do that. I think that's what makes us difficult is that each phase can beat you and that's where it makes us difficult to stop sometimes.
“And don't get me wrong, we've got to get better. I think there's areas that we've got to get better and we have to be cleaner. We've got to play for four quarters. We can't come out and play really well in the first quarter and then play well in the fourth quarter but stall in the second or third.”
In some ways, the notion is defined by the mantra of “pick your poison” that seemed to characterize Penn State’s 2016 on the offensive side of the ball. Instead, with a multiple offense, a ball-hawking defense and a lethal special teams unit, the concept extends dramatically..
Not needing to necessarily put together a performance that would be described as near-perfect in order to facilitate a win, the Nittany Lions have built up a margin for error that Franklin is only expecting to grow as the season passes and the team continues to progress.
“It's the little things; it's the details; it's the focus. It's the finishing; it's the straining,” said Franklin. “That's been my argument to the whole team is if the coaches, if the trainers, if the doctors, if the players, if everybody can just get a little bit better, just one percent better, then that's going to add up.
“All those little percentage points are going to add up and they are going to help us and hopefully give us a little bit more margin for error.”