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Penn State’s Offense & James Franklin’s Big Tease

by on October 19, 2017 9:30 PM

James Franklin is a tease.

Kinda funny, right, given that this much is nearly dead solid perfect:

Penn State is 6-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. It has yielded the fewest points per game in the country (9) and has scored almost 40 (39.7) per game.

Yet, points aside, the point is that Penn State offense isn’t hitting on all cylinders — (Moorhead) or less, heading into its Whiteout vs. Michigan.

And that’s where Penn State's head coach is playing footsie.

Tease No. 1:

“I do think we have some stuff we have saved for the second half of the year, that we haven’t shown a whole lot,” Franklin said after PSU beat Northwestern, 31-7, two weeks ago before the Nittany Lions took off for a bye week.

“I think it will help. I think it will help us, there’s no doubt about it.”

For good reason. Or bad — depending upon your perspective. This was CJF’s POV on Wednesday, when I asked him about an offensive sack-level that had reached Hackenbergerian levels the past three weeks:

“We have to run the ball better and we have to protect better…consistently,” Franklin said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that I think there are some things that we’re doing this week that will help with that.”

Things, as in some adjustments and new wrinkles on offense. But what?

That’s Tease No. 2.


Penn State’s offensive line has given up 14 sacks over the past three games, after yielding just 15 in the 13 games prior to that. (That streak began the week after Penn State fell to Michigan 49-10 in the Big House last September. Since then, Penn State has won a remarkable 15 of its last 16 games, and 11 consecutive games against Big Ten opponents.)

“Obviously, when we give up more sacks in a game than we get,” Franklin added on Wednesday, “we didn’t meet one of our objectives. There’s no doubt about it. I think that’s been a conversation for the early part of the season.”

In its 20 games since the 2016 season-opener, Penn State’s offense has given up more sacks than its defense has had just six times — in all three of its losses in 2016, against Pitt (4 sacks against, 0 for), Michigan (6-0) and USC (3-1), and in each of its last three games of 2017, against Iowa (4-1), Indiana (5-1) and Northwestern (5-4).

Hardly sack-happy.

“Yeah, we always want to reduce sacks,” Franklin said. “We always want to get as many as we possibly can. As you can imagine, like most problems in life, it’s not as simple as one thing. It’s a combination of factors that go into it.”

A big factor is that Penn State’s offensive line has had its problems lately. Veterans Brendan Mahon (35) and Andrew Nelson (29) have a combined 64 career starts, ranked No. 3 and No. 6 on the team, respectively. But they've been in and out of the lineup, especially Nelson, as has veteran offensive tackle Chaz Wright, which greatly reduces the experience, flexibility and effectiveness of the O-line. (Redshirt freshman Will Fries will get the start at right offensive tackle, ahead of Wright and Nelson.)

The result has been a three-game sack attack that hasn’t been seen in these parts since mid-2015, when Christian Hackenberg endured a total of 14 sacks in consecutive games against Indiana, Ohio State and Maryland. Cue the bad flashbacks.

In its last three games against Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines — three losses by an aggregate 90-39 points — Penn State has given up 16 QB sacks for 93 yards. In 2017, Michigan’s defense has had four games of three sacks or more.

Sacks are like nicotine for an offense that is usually smoking, but lately has a few but's. Deadly.

As Franklin pointed out: “I think there's a stat out there — you know I'm constantly looking at the analytics — I think the stat is: if you get a sack during a drive, you only have a 10% chance of scoring. That's for your defense and that's for your offense. Probably a very similar stat when you get a tackle-for-loss for five yards or more, things like that.”


The Michigan defense ain’t ranked No. 1 in overall in the country for nuthin’. It gives up just 3.68 yards per play, pass and run combined, and 224 yards per game. And it’s No. 6 against the run, yielding just 86 yards on the ground per game.

Not good news for Saquon Barkley. As it is, Michigan has historically had No. 26’s number. In 2015-16 against Michigan, Barkley carried the ball a combined 30 times for 127 yards, for a 4.2-yard average. Not bad, but not SportsCenter great, either.

Over Penn State’s past two games, Barkley is on a run that’s not Heisman hype-worthy. When you take away his 53-yarder for a TD against Northwestern two weeks ago, over the past eight quarters he’s carried the ball 35 times for 78 yards. That’s an average of 2.22 yards per carry, with 7 receptions for 60 yards.

That’s like what, a quarter’s work of work against Iowa?

That’s not to discount the 31 points Penn State scored against Northwestern or the 45 vs. Indiana. (But remember, the Lion offense scored just 19 points at Iowa despite racking up 579 yards on 99 plays against the Hawkeyes.)

At this juncture, it’s important to point out how quarterback Trace McSorley has risen to the challenge, even though since Jan. 2, 2016 (14 of 27, 142 yards, 2 TD passes in the TaxSlayer Bowl), his level has been top-shelf. Over the past nine quarters, dating back to his magic fourth quarter against Iowa in Kinnick Stadium, McSorley has completed 60 of 86 passes (69.8%) for 677 yards, with four touchdown passes and just one interception.

Penn State will need more of the same for Saturday night’s Whiteout. Plus some.


Here is how some of Franklin’s teasing may tease out:

A more mobile McSorley, with some movement out of the pocket. Or, as was the case in 2016, moving up into the pocket — back to really climbing the ladder.

Deeper shots against Michigan’s man-to-man coverage, ala 2016. According to super-scout Andrew Callahan of Lions247, Penn State has half as many completions that went over 20 yards in the air in 2017 compared to its first six games of 2016 and half as many attempts.

“The way Michigan plays defensive football, we're going to have some challenges,” Franklin said this week. “That's where the mobility at the quarterback position is important. That's where staying patient in the run game is important. That's where getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand is important. We also have to take some shots down the field. I get that. That also means holding onto the ball a little bit longer.”

Barkley here, there and everywhere. Barkley in the slot, Barkley perhaps split wide, Barkley in motion like we saw early in the season. Pre-snap and in space. Perhaps less of the straight RPO hand-offs deep in the backfield.

“It's important for putting Saquon in situations to be successful,” Franklin said. “The area I would say that we've spent a lot of time talking about is eliminating the negative yardage plays. If we just eliminate those, the plays that we get tackled behind of line of scrimmage and things like that, whether that's a block getting beat, whether them doing a great job of disguising what they're doing, that will really help us. The sacks, the negative yardage plays, if we can just reduce them a little bit, I think that will help us, will keep us on schedule from a first down perspective, and it will extend drives.”

More of tight end Mike Gesicki, to maximize Michigan’s man-to-man coverage and get the talented big man, fighting an injury in recent weeks, back in the flow.

Gesicki’s size, athleticism and ability to split the seam down the field create match-up problems. In Penn State’s last two games, he caught just five passes for 28 yards. In the season’s first two weeks, he had 10 grabs for 97 yards and four TDs.

The Nittany Lions will also need a big game from a second receiver. Barkley, who had 12 catches for 94 yards against Iowa, could be that guy. Or DaeSean Hamilton, who had 9 receptions and 3 TDs vs. Indiana. Or Juwan Johnson, who has 17 catches over the past three games vs. just 7 in the first three.

Maybe more TD Tommy. Receiver/runner/QB Tommy Stevens re-appeared in Evanston after not seeing the field against Iowa and Indiana.

And yet, patience, patience, patience.

“Even though we're an RPO team, it's easy to just start calling more passes,” Franklin admitted. “You got to keep calling the RPO's that give us an option to run the ball and be us in the best situation. Joe (Moorhead) does a great job with that, so does Matt and Coach Huff as well, sticking with those things.

“Again, we may call 12 RPO's in a row, and they all end up passes. Again, that's fine. I think what Saquon has shown is he doesn't need many touches or opportunities to make the big play. You're probably never going to look at the stat page on Sunday and Saquon has carried it 38 times for 250 yards. That's just not how we're built.”


Patience does have its virtues.

In coaching-speak, this is how it translates onto the field.

Two weeks ago, after the Nittany Lions defeated Northwestern, Franklin got out his verbal X’s and O’s, and gave a quick tutorial on why Barkley will keep on pounding the rock. Until he doesn’t.

“For us, we just stay patient and just keep on distributing the ball,” Franklin said, “if (the defense) is going to put that extra guy in the box. Or you’re going to fold the field linebacker late. Or you’re going to blitz the field ‘backer off of the edge — which is kind of the MO that everyone is doing. Or rushing the D-ends up the field, you’re creating pretty good throwing situations. It’s either free access, or if they’re going to press you, and now you have to match up with our guys man-to-man. And we got some pretty talented wide receivers. Pretty good situation.”

That situation will be tested on Saturday night. And we’re not teasing.

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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