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How Penn State Football Spent Its Bye Week

by on October 07, 2018 7:00 PM

Trace McSorley and James Franklin spent the tail end of Penn State’s bye week doing the same thing:

In the DMV, hitting classrooms, spreading the Penn State message, talking to future Nittany Lions.

Franklin and many of his assistant coaches left directly from practice on Wednesday to the airport so they could hit the recruiting trail — heading to all points, from Oregon to Florida to Virginia — and most didn’t return until late Saturday. 

McSorley, meanwhile, returned home to Ashburn, Va., where he visited Belmont Station Elementary School and a third-grade class taught by Penn State grad Hunter Hahesy.

Head coach and star quarterback were back at it on Sunday, per Penn State’s normal schedule of practicing on a Sunday and taking their NCAA-mandated day off on Monday in advance of their game this coming Saturday in Beaver Stadium.

The No. 8 Nittany Lions (4-1), who jumped from 11th to No. 8 in the AP poll despite not playing, face Michigan State in a Homecoming/Stripe Out contest. Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. and the game will be televised on the Big Ten Network. Sparty is 3-2 after falling 29-19 at Northwestern, despite leading 19-14 late in the third quarter.

Since 2014, Penn State is 1-3 vs. Michigan State. In 2017, Mark Dantonio's Spartans beat Penn State 27-24 on a walk-off field goal in East Lansing that came on the heels of a lengthy weather delay.

Penn State’s practice on Sunday was expected to run a bit longer than usual, following the same template Franklin set two weeks ago after the team’s Friday night game at Illinois. To get a jump on things for MSU, Franklin took a 10-minute chunk of Tuesday’s practice and moved it to Sunday.

“That allows Tuesday’s (practice) to be a little bit heavier day than it should be, and we know that, based on all of the sports science stuff,” Franklin said last week. “Whenever we have an opportunity to get ahead, to shift a 10-minute period to Sunday’s practice, we want to do that.”

GETTING DEFENSIVE

In addition to doing some pretty heavy recruiting, Franklin indicated that the Penn State used the extra time of the off-week to self-scout and examine the team’s flash points. He was pointed in his directive to defensive coordinator Brent Pry, whose defense has yielded an average of just 21.1 points per game in the 32 contests since he took the reins in 2016, including a 16.5 ppg average last season. Penn State ranks 34th nationally in points allowed in 2018 (21 per game), and is No. 10 in red zone defense.

“I asked Brent Pry to look at ways people are trying to attack us – formation into the boundary (and) Groucho, which is our unbalanced,” Franklin said.

“That’s whether it’s the key screens on the perimeter, whether it’s traditional screens, whether it’s when people feel like they know where our blitz is coming from and they try to run the stretch play away, whatever those types of things people see on film — let’s cover those things. Let’s make sure our guys understand how we’re going to defend those things and how people are going to attack us and how people have been trying to attack us the past couple of years.”

Penn State’s offense, headed by coordinator Ricky Rahne with McSorley as the triggerman, ranks No. 5 in the nation in scoring (49.6 points) and 14th in total offense (510 ypg). The Nittany Lions are tied for first in red zone scoring, making good on all 25 trips inside the 20-yard line — with 17 rushing TDs, six passing TDs and two field goals.

Franklin is a bit worried about the Nittany Lions’ pass protection. They rank 54th in the nation in sacks, giving up nine for 54 yards in five games.

“Offensively, it’s going through all the pressures,” Franklin said of Rahne’s self-scouting and film work. “So, here’s all the pressures that have gotten to our quarterback. Here’s the sacks that have gotten to our quarterback. This is how they’ve done it.

“Then we try to make mirrored corrections. What I found in my years, is that I watch guys and they make the corrections with the left tackle and the left guard. Well, your right guard and right tackle have the same correction, but they didn’t (address it). So now, if they run a mirrored blitz from the other side, we make the same mistake.

“You don’t always necessarily the time to do it during a normal week, but you can do a mirrored correction, so both sides of the defense are getting the correction and both sides of the offense are getting the correction to make sure that it is crystal clear.”

TURNOVERS: BYE OR OFF?

No doubt Franklin & Co. will also spent some time examining their approach to turnovers. They are just plus 1 on the season — as was the case in 2016, when Penn State went 11-3. (Other TO margins during CJF’s time at PSU: plus 12 in 2017, plus 4 in 2015 and minus 5 in 2014.)

Through five games in 2018, the Nittany Lion defense has produced just seven take-aways — five interceptions, two fumbles recovered — ranking it 83rd in turnovers forced. They created only one turnover against Ohio State, a pick by safety Garrett Taylor, who returned it 45 yards. Of course, let’s also not forget Amani Oruwariye’s game-winning pick in OT vs. App State.

On offense, despite the pressures Franklin referenced, McSorley has thrown only two interceptions in 138 attempts, and one of those was the result of a PSU receiver not holding onto the ball.

Conversely, they have coughed up four fumbles, the most recent by Miles Sanders, which led to a crucial and easy Ohio State 25-yard scoring drive deep into the second quarter of last week’s loss — the Buckeyes’ only score of the first half after Pry’s defense halted eight consecutive drives. McSorley hasn’t lost a fumble in 66 carries; freshman Ricky Slade has lost two fumbles in 25 carries and tight end Jonathan Holland has lost in fumble as well.

The Penn State coaches did more than self-scout and recruit last week, though.

Last Wednesday, after delivering a 271-word soliloquy on the mechanics and virtues of self-scouting, Franklin did acknowledge his coaches were spending their time on other things.

“And obviously,” Franklin concluded, “getting a head start on Michigan State.”



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