Penn State Football: For James Franklin, 5 Ways Bye-Week was a Good Buy
The last five times James Franklin has had a bye week or a pre-bowl month, his teams have been 5-0 in their next game.
Penn State hasn’t been so lucky.
The last five times Penn State played following a bye week or a month of bowl prep, the Nittany Lions won just once and lost four games as well as a head coach.
That’s not likely to happen on Saturday, when 4-1 Penn State travels to Ann Arbor to play a free-falling 2-4 Michigan squad at night in the Big House.
Franklin learned what to do with his off-weeks at his previous institution, where following bye weeks in 2012-13 he won at Missouri, against No. 15 Georgia and at Florida. And, all three times the Commodores were a bit (Anchor) down entering those games. In the three games – all losses – heading into their weeks off, they were thrashed by a collective 155-55.
One of those was a 56-24 debacle against Texas A&M in 2013 that included a 305-yard, four-TD pass performance by Johnny Manziel. The next week, though, Vanderbilt traveled to Gainesville and defeated Florida, 34-17. And in Vanderbilt’s two most recent bowl games (there’s a sentence formerly known as an oxymoron), it beat N.C. State, 38-24, in the Music City Bowl, Houston, 41-24, in the Compass Bowl.
When he arrived at Vanderbilt, Franklin was facing a different set of sanctions than he has at Penn State. He was coaching at Vanderbilt, which had been to one bowl in the last 28 seasons and averaged 3.3 victories per season for the previous decade.
At Nashville, the momentum heading bye weeks was a mixed bag. In three seasons, Franklin’s team entered bye weeks 3-1 in 2011 (when Vandy lost 34-0 to No. 2 Alabama the next week); 1-3 in 2012 (a post-bye 19-15 win at Missouri); and 3-3 in 2013 (that win at Florida).
“I think there are some similarities in what we’ve been through in the past and what we’re facing here,” Franklin said last week. “Experience counts and I think the way you handle these bye weeks is really important. I’ve worked for a lot of different coaches that have handled them in different ways. What we’re trying to do is learn from all those past experiences, but also do what’s best for Penn State now.”
What’s best for Penn State? The bye week has allowed Franklin, his staff and team to focus on:
1. INJURIES. More specifically, healing any injuries. And on his Thursday night radio show recently, Franklin alluded to the fact his team is hurting more than most folks know. “For the guys that have had the nagging injuries, the nagging ankle or bruised shoulder, you just need the time off,” he said. “That’s where it’s most valuable and then, obviously, the guys that are playing more reps than they should be – but based on our situation, that’s where we’re at -- allowing those guys to get off of their legs a little bit to get their legs back. Those things are really valuable and probably more valuable for us, in our situation, than most.”
Penn State’s bye week, followed by the Michigan game, has to help with the Nittany Lions’ biggest injury of 2014. Veteran guard and co-captain Miles Dieffenbach went down with a knee injury during spring drills, but was spotted along the sidelines wearing pads at a recent practice. The Wolverine Sandwich made with slices of bye means Dieffenbach misses just one game in 27 days. No one has to be happier about that than Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
2. HOME SWEET HOME. After practice on Wednesday night, Penn State’s players were furloughed for over 85 hours, until they had practice on Sunday. For many, it was their first time home since the end of June – more than three months ago. Most players enrolled in the second six-week summer session, which started July 2 and went all the way into summer drills. At the end of summer practice, they headed to Ireland and then played five games in 29 days.
3. RECRUITING. All hands – including Herb Hand – were on deck for Penn State last week. Most coaches were on the road for two and three nights of high school games, often two in one night, as well as visiting high school guidance counselors and coaches. Franklin has said he’s known to check in with the school custodian to get the lowdown on a certain player. And you’ve certainly read and seen by now that Franklin, just as he did at Vanderbilt, used a helicopter to get Penn State’s already-successful recruiting efforts, off the ground.
4. SELF-SCOUTING. With all those rapid-fire games to start the season the Penn State coaching staff spent most of their non-practice time watching video and breaking down the opposition. Since none of the 10 coaches had ever worked in the Big Ten Conference, there was a lot of educating going on. (Although Vanderbilt did play at Northwestern in 2012, losing 23-13 after surrendering 17 points in the fourth quarter, and defeated UMass, 24-7, in 2013. But the Minutemen had a new coaching staff in 2014.) That left little time for Penn State’s coaches to evaluate their own talent in a way they hadn’t done since August. That includes what their players do well, not just identifying what they don’t.
“I think everything we do -- people thinking about on offense, defense and special teams -- it’s just about watching the film and what can we do to attack their weaknesses?” Franklin said a few weeks ago. “I would say that’s 50 percent of what coaches typically do, and maybe even less than that. Fifty percent of the time, you’re also trying to hide some of your own issues, or maybe your personnel doesn’t allow you to do certain things.”
5. THE MICHIGAN MEN. When the players gathered on Sunday, they didn’t spend any time – as they typically do – looking back at the game played just 24 hours ago. They are so over Northwestern. That meant the players could launch right into Michigan. Their coaches already had.
“One of the big things is a lot of times in normal weeks and preparation, you’re rushing to get the stuff corrected from the week before,” Franklin said. “You’re rushing to get the new game plan installed. You’re rushing to work on fundamentals and techniques that you need. What happens is you probably don’t do a good enough job in any of those areas. The bye week allows you to do that, especially when you’re a new staff and trying to install new things.”
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