James Franklin dominating the state as he enters Year 4 at PSU

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James Franklin dominating the state as he enters Year 4 at PSU

After being introduced as Penn State’s head coach in January 2014, James Franklin said something that will either be etched on his tombstone or scrawled upon it by graffiti artists.

He said he wanted to “dominate the state.”

He was talking specifically about recruiting, which in truth is (and always has been) the goal of the guy heading the commonwealth's highest-profile Division I football program: You want to keep the best kids close to home.

The phrase was nonetheless used to mock him as his team struggled through consecutive 7-6 seasons his first two years on the job. The Lions broke out in 2016, going 11-3 and winning the Big Ten, and now it can be said with certainty that he has lived up to his vow — that while he and his staff have generally excelled on the recruiting trail, they have done particularly well in their backyard.

That very much includes the Delaware Valley, as stands to reason: Franklin is a Langhorne native.

Of the 120 players listed on the Nittany Lions’ preseason roster, 45 are Pennsylvanians. That’s 37.5 percent and includes a guy who is not only the best player on the team but also one of the best in the country, running back Saquon Barkley. While a native of the Bronx, he grew up near Allentown. 

With a couple New Jerseyans factored in, there are 14 from Philadelphia and its environs. They include left tackle Ryan Bates (Warrington/Archbishop Wood), the Lions’ best offensive lineman, starting defensive tackle Curtis Cothran (Newtown/Council Rock North) and starting defensive end Shareef Miller (Philadelphia/George Washington).

Also in that number are Miller’s two primary backups, Ryan Buchholz (Malvern/Great Valley) and Shaka Toney (Philadelphia/Imhotep Charter), as well as starting wide receiver Juwan Johnson (Glassboro, New Jersey), who is widely viewed as a breakout candidate this season, his first as a regular.

(Not included on the season’s first depth chart, released Tuesday, was cornerback John Reid [Mount Laurel, New Jersey/St. Joe’s Prep]. A returning starter, he injured a knee during spring practice and is expected to miss much of the season, if not all of it.)

“Obviously for us to be the team we want to be and have the type of program that we want to have, we have to go a great job in the state of Pennsylvania,” Franklin said Tuesday, as he looked ahead to Saturday’s season opener against Akron.

He noted not only his ties to the Philadelphia area but also the fact that some of his former teammates at East Stroudsburg, where he played quarterback in the early 1990s, have gone into coaching.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” he said, “when you can walk into a high school office and you’ve got a relationship, and you kind of understand those schools and their backgrounds and their strengths and their weaknesses, all those types of things, it helps. It really does. They have a familiarity with you, you have a familiarity with them and there’s trust there. So I think all those relationships and those networks have been critical to what we’ve been able to do so far.”

Bates is a guy all the big schools wanted, after serving as a two-way tackle on a Wood club that won consecutive state titles in 2013 and 2014. He redshirted his first year at PSU while beginning the growth process from 275 pounds to his current 315. Last season, he started the first 10 games at left guard and the last four at left tackle, after injuries left the Lions threadbare at the latter position.

“It wasn’t that big of a deal for me,” he said. “I do feel more comfortable out at tackle, honestly. I feel better in space. I trust my feet.”

He wound up making a pair of freshman All-America teams, and line coach Matt Limegrover now regards the redshirt sophomore as a guy who is “going to be a cornerstone for us the next three years.”

The other locals have grown into their roles as well — in Cothran’s case, literally. He was a 230-pound defensive end when he arrived on campus in 2013. He is now listed at 295, and after starting eight games last year said Tuesday that he considers it “a blessing” to be listed as the regular heading into the opener.

“And,” he added, “it definitely just shows the amount of work that goes into it. I mean, nothing's ever easy, especially in college football. Through the years of grinding everything out, I'm thankful to be here.”

Same for Johnson, who last year recorded his first two career catches but is now filling the spot played in 2016 by Chris Godwin, a third-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Sleep on me if you want to,” it said on Johnson’s Twitter page at one point during spring practice. “I’ll wake you up soon.”

By then the 6-foot-4, 218-pound redshirt sophomore had awakened just about everybody. Admittedly inconsistent his first two seasons in the program, his strides were such that receivers coach Josh Gattis called him “one of the most improved players on the team” in an interview with the Big Ten Network.

Nothing appears to have changed since then.

“Eager season,” it now says on Johnson’s Twitter page.

The defensive end corps likewise oozes potential, despite the departures of the starters Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Miller and Buchholz both saw plenty of action last year — position coach Sean Spencer prefers to rotate fresh bodies — and redshirt freshmen like Shane Simmons and Toney are intriguing prospects.

Cothran, in fact, called Simmons “a freak of nature,” and Bates said much the same of Toney, who is unusually slight (6-3, 218) for his position.

“Shaka,” Bates said, “is probably one of the fastest guys I've ever gone against. I feel like I'm playing a corner at defensive end just because of his sheer speed and his quickness coming off the ball.”

The Lions likewise appear to have turned a corner. And it is in large part because they have taken some familiar exits.

No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: This time, Lions favored in 'whiteout' game

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No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 19 Michigan: This time, Lions favored in 'whiteout' game

This team is back. That team is back. The practice of proclaiming that a struggling traditional college football power has returned to elite status after a big win is fraught with false steps.

The truth is that a return to glory can rarely be narrowed down to a single game. But if there ever was a "they're back" moment in college football that turned out to be real, it was on Oct. 22, 2016, in State College, Pennsylvania.

That night, unranked Penn State — a month removed from getting demolished at Michigan and three weeks after an overtime escape against Minnesota that had Nittany Lions fans booing the home team — beat No. 2 Ohio State in a Beaver Stadium whiteout. For the first time under coach James Franklin, Happy Valley was euphoric about Penn State football.

The Nittany Lions have been one of the best teams in the country since.

One year after that victory, the Nittany Lions have another whiteout scheduled and another Big Ten power visiting for a nationally televised game. The difference is that it will be no upset if No. 2 Penn State (6-0) beats No. 19 Michigan (5-1) on Saturday night.

The Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country, but a lethargic offense (86th in the nation). Penn State looks like a College Football Playoff team right now with a Heisman Trophy contender in running back Saquon Barkley, a top-25 offense (6.49 yards per play) and a top-five defense (4.01 ypp).

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh called Penn State "a well-built team."

"They're really good everywhere," he said.

It's easy to point to last year's Ohio State game as a turning point for Penn State in the post-Joe Paterno era, but the humbling loss to Michigan was also notable. The Nittany Lions were banged up on defense and still working out the kinks of a new offense, but at that moment they looked light years from being able to consistently compete with the best in the country. They have not lost a regular-season game since.

All this talk of turning points does not resonate with Franklin, who just sees a long steady grind that continues to this day.

"Like I say with a lot of things, there's 25 slices in this pie," Franklin said. "The Michigan loss last year was a factor. Development was a factor. Players taking responsibility and accountability was a factor. The coaches building relationships and chemistry with the players was a factor. I don't make it as simplistic as a lot of people want it to be."

Things to know about 21st meeting between Penn State and Michigan, but the first since 2002 in which both teams are ranked:

Brown delivers
Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown and Franklin worked together at Maryland under coach Ralph Friedgen in 2009 and '10.

"I would describe Don as a greedy defensive coordinator," said Franklin, who was offensive coordinator. "What I mean by that is, most defensive coordinators are going to try to take something away, but when they take something away, they're giving you something.

"Don doesn't believe in that. Don is going to overload the box. A lot of guys are going to be on the line of scrimmage in blitz demeanor. The defensive backs are going to be pressed pretty much across the board. They're going to try to take your run game away. They're going to take all the easy throws away."

Heisman watch
Barkley's Heisman campaign slowed a bit the last couple weeks as he was held to a 121 yards rushing and 60 receiving. Still, he is without question the focus of Michigan's defense.

"He runs with great balance," Michigan linebacker Devin Bush said told reporters this week. "He can make those cuts. He can hit those small holes."

Penn State's offensive line has had issues keeping defenders out of the backfield and giving Barkley a chance to get rolling. The Nittany Lions rank 122nd in the nation in tackles for loss allowed at 8.33 per game.

"We just have to be more physical up front and sustain our blocks," center Connor McGovern said.

Sluggish Wolverines
Michigan's team passer efficiency rating is 114.41, better than only Illinois and Rutgers in the Big Ten. John O'Korn (one touchdown pass, four interceptions) is expected to start again at quarterback.

For the first time since 2009, ESPN's "College GameDay" pregame show will broadcast from State College. Beaver Stadium holds almost 107,000 people and when almost all of them are wearing white it can be one of the most hypnotic sights in college football. Penn State only holds whiteouts for big games. The Nittany Lions are 6-7 in those games.

Maturing Trace McSorley effective with short, quick passes

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Maturing Trace McSorley effective with short, quick passes

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — To take the next step in his evolution, Trace McSorley first had to go backward.

Penn State's quarterback went back in the offseason and reviewed enough film and saw enough open receivers who never had a shot to catch one of his passes. There, sitting in front of a computer screen, was the first time McSorley had looked their way.

"Where I was at this point last year, and even toward the end of the year, it felt like I was kind of predetermining things," McSorley said. "Now I feel like I'm doing a better job of going through my progressions and finding that open guy, getting to that third guy in the progression if the first two aren't there."

McSorley might've earned a national reputation for airing out deep balls down the stretch last season, but he's finding that managing a game by taking what defenses give works just as well.

It's also a much more dependable strategy for offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

"That's what this offense was designed to do," tight end Mike Gesicki said. "You may not see the 70-yard touchdowns that we've had in the past, but that's because defenses aren't allowing us to do that."

After finishing fifth among FBS quarterbacks with 65 completions of 20 or more yards last year, McSorley is on pace for 52 so far. While he's not throwing deep as much, McSorley is using just about every other inch of the field in front of the first-down marker.

That quick passing game has come in handy.

Penn State's rushing attack, which is averaging 1.8 yards per carry on 75 attempts over the last two games, struggled badly against Northwestern. Save for a 53-yard touchdown run from Barkley, the Nittany Lions managed just 42 yards on 38 other carries. McSorley made up the difference by completing 16 of 20 passes that traveled less than 9 yards in the air for short gains to get drives started or keep them going.

"I think he's pretty much better in every metric possible," Penn State coach James Franklin said.

That includes his completion percentage — up nine percentage points to 67 percent — with more yards (1,597), touchdowns (13), attempts (194) and completions (130) than at this time last year. But the area McSorley takes the most pride in is his increased understanding of how defenses open up as plays develop. With it, McSorley's been able to make the most of plays by making good use of his time in the pocket.

Take a third-and-14 from midfield against the Wildcats for example. McSorley had time and his eyes scanned from left to right. He saw Juwan Johnson on an outside comeback, covered. Tight end Mike Gesicki was shadowed on a shallow crossing route. His third option, DaeSean Hamilton, ran a deeper cross and finally found a seam for McSorley to thread for a first down.

"I think Trace has gotten a lot more comfortable just being a quarterback," Gesicki said. "Any time you're in a system for another year, and you're with the same coach, not really switching up anything, you're always going to be more comfortable, more able to go through progressions or read defenses quicker."

As his quarterback has expanded his capacity, Moorhead has found more ways to get quick, shifty receivers the ball so they can gains yards after the catch in space. Those plays — simple, short, confidence-building throws to the flats or on outside routes — could be tougher to complete against No. 19 Michigan's top overall defense on Saturday.

The Wolverines like to play man-to-man coverage and the Nittany Lions are expecting a physical battle from a secondary that's giving up just 138 yards per game.

"They're going to take all the easy throws away," Franklin said. "It's going to be press coverage, man coverage. Our guys are going to have to create space with the routes, and they're going to have to make contested catches."