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4 Critical Areas Where James Franklin Says Penn State is Out of Balance

by on October 18, 2018 7:00 PM

Penn State is off-balance.

And not just because they dropped two nail-biters in their last two games.

The Nittany Lions are a bit off-kilter in four key areas, beyond the loss column:

Penn State’s defense now seems to be carrying the load. The team overall is facing a bit of a leadership deficit.

The offense, which was accustomed to four or five consistent play-makers, is down to basically two. And field goals, a strong staple of some of Franklin’s best squads at Vanderbilt and Penn State, are very hard to come by.

Says who? James Franklin, that’s who.

And he noted as much in his comments this week. Here are Franklin’s Unbalanced Four:

1. The past two weeks, Penn State’s defense is outplaying the usually high-flyin’ offense.

Franklin: “To be honest with you, I think defensively, we played good enough to win that game (Michigan State).

In tandem, the Buckeyes and Spartans scored 66 points against Penn State in 2017, and only 48 in 2018. Props to D-coordinator Brent Pry’s group, to be sure. The offense, meanwhile, fell from 62 points vs. OSU and MSU in 2017 to only 43 combined in 2018. The trends reversed so dramatically, that Penn State somehow managed to lose all four games.

Here’s how veteran linebacker Koa Farmer sees it:

“I think as far as the defense, I think we did — I think we played well. I think the last few games we did play well. Just ultimately, our defense has to take it to the next step as far as getting off the field, like when it's third-and-long or third-and-short or third-and-medium, whatever it is, we have to get off the field. We can't drop interceptions. We have to make that tackle to get off the field.

“As far as the linebacker group, we had our best game, actually. Everyone graded out a winner. I actually had my best game. Actually, everyone had their best game to be honest.”

2. Penn State could use some more leaders of the older variety. Of the 111 active players on Penn State’s official roster this week, only 13 are in their final season of eligibility.

Franklin: “We have a younger team. There's no doubt about it. There are less of those guys that have been through this type of adversity before. But the ones that we do have I think have really strong voices and are culture drivers for us and have been really good.

“Does it strain those guys? Yeah, because there's less of them. There's no doubt about it.”

Trace McSorley is the undisputed leader of the Penn State offense. You could make a case that he’s also the leader of the defense, the special teams, the locker room, the practice field, the post-game interview room and even the house he shares with a couple of veteran teammates.

Farmer, who is one of those housemates, explains what McSorley was like at home last Saturday night after the crushing loss to Michigan State (hint, he wasn’t in his jammys, curled up on the couch, watching HGTV and eating Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy straight from the carton):

“(Trace) was watching film, getting the corrections made. It's not like he was mad or happy. He's just — I don't know, it's hard to explain Trace's demeanor, to be honest. I talked to him after the game. We were hanging out after the game and it seems like everything is good and in spirits.

“I think the important thing for Trace is a lot of guys look up to him, so he can't show too much emotion or too much anger because people are going to feed off that kind of energy. I think what he does is doing a great job of holding that energy and rallying the troops back, so we can get better.”

Teammates most often cite safety Nick Scott as the leader of the defense, but the unit could use a powerful, strong force — like a Jason Cabinda, a Poz, a Sean Lee, a Mauti, a Shane Conlan (all linebackers, BTW) — who can grab the unit by their collective footballs in crunch time and will or bully them to make a play or a stop.

The 2017 squad had those guys, in spades, on both sides of the ball. The 2018 group, not so much — especially with the loss of players like Torrence Brown, Ryan Buchholz, Mark Allen and yes, Manny Bowen, who — when camp opened this past August — was the team’s No. 1 returning tackler.

Franklin did a good job of explaining this on Tuesday:

“Obviously, each week when we watch the cut-ups and go through situations as we're coming up with the game plan, we're typically watching the previous game against that opponent from the year before. You see guys like Marcus Allen, who played a lot of football for us, and Jason Cabinda, who played a lot of football for us, and the D-tackles (Curtis Cothran and Parker Cothren) and so on and so forth.

“We have less of those guys on offense and defense, so those guys have to have stronger voices for us, there's no doubt about it. They have been through this adversity and they have been through the challenges before and we have to push our way through it.”

3. Penn State’s offense is unbalanced, tipped heavily in favor of McSorley and running back Miles Sanders (and as a running back only), in a way the PSU RPO hadn’t seen in 2016-17.

Franklin: “When you got receivers who are all part of the offense, when you got a quarterback who is running the ball and you got a tailback who is making plays, that’s when you really become problematic.”

Sanders ranks No. 10 in the nation in rushing and other than his 43-yard performance vs. Ohio State, has been a beast running the ball, gaining 700 yards on 104 carries (a 6.7-yard ave.), with seven TDs. However, his game is unbalanced as well: In the last three contests, Sanders has caught exactly two passes, for two yards vs. Ohio State.

As McSorley showed against Ohio State, with a school-record 461 total yards, he’s carrying a huge load on offense. And against Michigan State, you can see it is getting to be quite the burden.

Penn State hasn’t been so reliant on a pair of players since it went to the RPO — which is designed to spread the ball out — at the start of the 2016 season. For example:

2016 — Four players had at least 48 touches in plays from scrimmage: McSorley, Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin and Mike Gesicki.

2017 — Five Nittany Lions had a combined total of at least 54 runs/receptions/passes: Barkley, McSorley, Gesicki, DaeSean Hamilton and Juwan Johnson.

2018 — After six games, only McSorley and Sanders are really on track for more than 48 touches on offense this year (Ricky Slade technically is, with 26 carries, but he’s had just one touch in the past two games). If you take away Tommy Stevens’ ill-fated three carries for minus-12 yards against Ohio State (yes, one was a lateral pass), and Slade’s one carry for eight yards vs. Sparty, only McSorley (38 rushes) and Sanders (33) have carried the ball for Penn State in its last two games.

In 2018, Johnson has only 19 catches for 221 yards through six games, while K.J. Hamler has a pair of runs for 32 yards and 18 receptions for 374 yards. Only one other Penn State player, freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth, has at least 10 touches.

Hamler is averaging a paltry 3.3 touches from scrimmage per game. Compare that to another speedy Big Ten freshman wide receiver, Rondale Moore of Purdue. Moore is a mid-season Associated Press All-American, with 45 catches for 558 yards and five TDs, with another 139 yards rushing and a TD in nine carries. Moore (5-9, 174) also has 310 return yards, while Hamler (5-9, 176) has 353.

4. Field goals are at premium; in fact, field goal attempts are at a premium.

Franklin:“From a field goal perspective, obviously we need to be better there.”

With freshman place-kicker Jake Pinegar managing only eight field goal attempts — and only four made — through six games, Penn State is on a pace for matching the desultory 2017 field goal output of 9-for-17. (Pinegar’s in place in part because place-kicker Alex Barbir, who would have been a redshirt sophomore this year, left Penn State after last season.)

In 2018, Pinegar has made field goals from 20, 32, 34 and 39 yards. Even on the longest one (39) the line of scrimmage was the 22 — almost the red zone. He’s missed from 37, 44, 45 and 46 yards. Nothing extraordinarily long.

Franklin clearly does not have a ton of confidence in the true freshman. As a result, Blake Gillikin has punted from inside the opponent’s 50 more often than usual, and the Nittany Lions have occasionally gone for it on fourth down — putting even more pressure on an already-stressed offense the past two weeks — when a field goal attempt in the 42- to 50-yard range was there for the offing.

Discounting his first year at Vanderbilt, and 2017 — when Tyler Davis was a shadow of his 22-for-24 2016 self — Franklin has made significant hay in the field goal game as a head coach, as the chart below demonstrates.

But on balance — and here’s the rub — not this year.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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