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Penn State Football: How to Close The Gap

by on September 22, 2016 11:00 PM

The bookmakers are laying odds that there will be an 18.5-point gap between fourth-ranked Michigan and Penn State on Saturday.

History says the gap between Michigan and Penn State is 12 wins for the Wolverines and seven for Penn State. (Built largely on Lloyd Carr’s 9-2 gap over Joe Paterno.)

By average score, though, the gap narrows to Michigan 23.8, Penn State 21.5.

But the gap is even wider in The Big House, site of Saturday’s game in Ann Arbor, where Michigan has won six of its last seven home games against Penn State.

One of those games came in 2005, when the gap was all of one second, two points and 10 yards, as Michigan’s Chad Henne hit Mario Manningham on a 10-yard TD pass play that began with one tick on the clock and ended with Michigan winning 27-25.

In 2013, it took four overtimes for Penn State to finalize a game-winning 43-40 gap.

In 2014, in James Franklin’s first year as head coach at Penn State, there was no gap in the Big House after three quarters, when the score was tied 13-13. (Michigan won 18-13.)

In 2015, the gap in Beaver Stadium was conceivably as narrow as one yard with 8:05 left in the game. That’s when Franklin and the Nittany Lions, trailing by 21-13 after marching 62 yards in 10 plays to set up a fourth-and-goal from the 1, opted to kick a field goal (18 yards by Tyler Davis) to narrow the gap to 21-16 instead of going for a touchdown and a shot at a gap-closing two-point conversion. (Michigan won 28-16.)

Which brings us back to 2016. And a very big gap.

Michigan returns 12 starters from that Nov. 21 Beaver Stadium game played in 2015; Penn State – which is minus all three starting linebackers and corner Grant Haley – will play eight.

Michigan’s players have made 418 career starts. Penn State, sans six injured players with 83 career starts, has just 238 career starts.

There’s also a senior gap.

“We have 12 seniors on our team,” said Franklin, counting sidelined seniors Nyeem Wartman-White, Brandon Bell and Evan Schwan. “They have 13 seniors on the two-deep on defense, and 13 seniors on the two-deep on offense.”

Finally, says Franklin, the Nittany Lions’ defense is fighting “to be consistently gap sound.” It’s a defense that includes just one player among its front seven (end Garrett Sickels) who started when the two teams met just six games ago. And it’s a defense that includes a middle linebacker (Brandon Smith) who had seen just three snaps – which rhymes with gaps -- on defense in his first 41 games at Penn State, before playing 57 snaps last Saturday against Temple.


So, what’s a gapped-out coach to do in closing all-those gaps?

I think it’s a couple things,” Franklin said earlier this week. Let us count the ways:

1. Think upset. Think unranked Penn State defeating No. 2 Ohio State 27-0 in Columbus in 1964. Or Penn State almost upsetting eventual national champion Ohio State in double-overtime in 2014.

“No. 1, it’s your approach and it’s your attitude,” said Franklin. “We’ve got an unbelievable opportunity to go on the road into a great venue, another historical program and do something special.”

2. Cram like it’s a Stat 200 all-nighter. Franklin & Co. tried to immerse their young squad in everything from calling signals while “Hail to the Victors” was playing at practice this week to giving Smith and fellow back-up backers – and now starters – Manny Bowen and Jake Cooper a diet heavy on film.

“That’s where talking football, explaining situational football, showing them examples on video of things that we’re doing well in practice and things that we need to do better -- things that they are watching, whether it’s ‘Monday Night Football’ in the NFL or whether it’s other college games,” said Franklin. It’s all with the goal of “trying to speed up that maturation process as much as possible.”

3. Think big play – more or less: More on offense, less on defense. On his radio show Thursday night, Franklin said explosive plays (typically over 10 or 15 yards) are the No. 2 factor in determining who wins a game (after NO. 1, which is turnovers; Michigan is plus 2, Penn State is minus 2).

“I think the other thing on offense is the explosive plays, because the more explosive plays you can have, you don’t need to be right for a 16-play drive or 14-play drive,” said Franklin. “I think that helps.

“Same thing on defense, if you can find a way, to protect the ball on the offense and create turnovers on defense. That is a huge momentum swinger in the game and creates more opportunities. Same thing, if you look statistically at giving up big plays on special teams, blocked punts and things like that, it’s hard to win if you do those things. So eliminating those things is important.”

4. Think positively – which comes naturally for James Vincent Peale.

“I think it’s talking football, it’s teaching football, it’s building confidence,” said Franklin. “It’s us going into that stadium expecting to win with that mentality. And I think we have a number of players that feel that way. What we have to do is increase that number between now and Saturday.”

5. Convert the swing voters. Convince those guys who aren’t so sure they can win – and Franklin, to his credit, said such players exist – that they can. Really.

“You’re always going to have a portion of the guys that believe whoever we play, whether it’s the Green Bay Packers or the Pittsburgh Steelers or Philadelphia Eagles, that we’re going to beat them if we play,” Franklin said.

“Then there is that group that’s on the fence that you need to convince.

“And then you have the young players who are still trying to figure it all out. And what you’re still trying to do is move as many guys as you possibly can into that category so you can go into that game on Saturday confident, excited for the opportunity. To me, this is why you come to Penn State to play in these types of games.”

•  •  •  •

And, finally, I’ll add my own No. 6. For this, I consulted Dr. Dave Yukelson, Penn State’s sage sports psychologist for over a quarter of a century. He’s just about the smartest guy I know when it comes to explaining the sports mind and closing the gap between maybe and can.

6. Yuke’s advice: Believe.

“True confidence comes in knowing you are prepared and it is tied to commitment and belief,” Yukelson explained to me this week. “Belief is more of an enduring construct tied to one’s inner strength of conviction that ‘I can, I will’ get the job done. It’s linked to the concepts of resiliency, stick-to-itiveness, positive mindset and willpower to keep battling, bounce back and handle adversity.” 

In other words, there’s a gap between believing and having confidence.

Confidence can wane, belief does not. It’s a big concept for a Big House. Then again, odds are it’s a big gap.

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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