STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — His team is 5-0, but James Franklin was talking clean-ups Saturday.
A clean-up of a running game that struggles at times despite the presence of the nation’s most dynamic back. A clean-up of the suddenly unreliable field-goal unit.
This matters now, because October is here and No. 4 Penn State — despite Saturday’s 45-14 victory over Indiana, despite its best start since 2008 — is about to step up in class.
There is a potentially tricky trip to Northwestern next Saturday, and two weeks after that the Nittany Lions begin a three-game stretch that will define their season — Michigan at home, Ohio State and Michigan State on the road.
By then, it will be too late for clean-ups. By then, things will have to be neat and clean.
“There are areas we have to get better,” Franklin said. “For where we want to go and what we want to do, we have to get better.”
To date Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley have most often tidied things up — McSorley, notably, with his last-second touchdown pass at Iowa last week, Barkley with his continual exploits.
After providing a school-record 358 all-purpose yards against the Hawkeyes, he returned Saturday’s opening kickoff 98 yards, and by quarter’s end, the Lions were up 28-0.
The day unraveled a bit after that. PSU managed all of 22 yards while allowing two Hoosiers touchdowns in the second quarter. Tyler Davis, 30 for 32 on field goals before this season but 5 for 11 this fall, missed from 21 yards, connected from 45 and had a 42-yarder blocked.
And as for the running game, don’t ask. With five sacks factored in, the Lions totaled 39 yards on the ground, on 37 attempts. Barkley, despite 205 all-purpose yards (some 48 fewer than his FBS-leading average entering the game), ran for 56 on 20 tries.
Part of that was IU’s hyper-aggressive scheme, one the Hoosiers had also used to good effect while limiting Barkley to 58 yards on 33 carries in 2016. But the bigger factor appeared to be a leaky offensive line.
“There were hiccups here and there today,” said left tackle Ryan Bates, an Archbishop Wood graduate. “We ran some runs (against) different blitzes and different fronts that didn’t work out great. There’s always room for improvement, and we can get better, obviously.”
The Lions started their fourth different line combination of the season, with redshirt freshman Will Fries getting his first start at right tackle after playing the bulk of last week’s game at that position. Chasz Wright, the starter the first three weeks, also saw action, after missing the Iowa game with an undisclosed injury. But Andrew Nelson, who opened against the Hawkeyes, did not dress; he has battled knee problems throughout his career.
The rest of the group — Bates, left guard Steven Gonzalez, center Connor McGovern and right guard Brendan Mahon — is well-seasoned, and figures to get better. It will have to, given the front sevens Michigan and Ohio State will present.
As for Saturday, Bates said he and his linemates were “satisfied,” if only because they won. At the same time, he added, “There’s definitely kind of a bad taste in our mouths because we know what we can do, and how we can do it, and we’re better than how we played today.”
Absent a running game, PSU found other avenues to success. The defense and special teams excelled. Trace McSorley threw for 315 yards. DaeSean Hamilton caught nine balls for 122 and three touchdowns, becoming the school’s all-time leading receiver in the process.
And Barkley provided his own special flair, as when he made a one-handed grab of a first-quarter swing pass and turned it into a gain of 36. He also threw a 16-yard TD pass to Hamilton, albeit with 4:13 left and PSU up 24 — a curious strategic decision, to say the least.
“He’s got so many tools in his toolbox,” Franklin said, “and every week for us, it’s how do we take advantage of them, to give our defense and our opponents issues.”
It also figures to give Heisman voters a viable option down the road.
“I say it so many times: I don’t care about the Heisman award,” Barkley said, before amending that slightly. “Obviously I care because I’m competitive, and I want to be the best and I would love to try to win it, but that’s not my focus. My focus is on the team. My focus is on the game. My focus is on coming out every week and pushing my team to its standards and continuing to be the best I can be.”
On cleaning things up, in other words. It’s a dirty job, and given what lies ahead, somebody’s got to do it.