james franklin

Penn State sprung some surprises on Michigan in blowout victory

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Penn State sprung some surprises on Michigan in blowout victory

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It was 11:23 p.m. Saturday night — James Franklin, poised to address reporters in the Beaver Stadium media room, knew the time because he checked a cellphone lying before him — and Penn State’s coach said that would allow him exactly 37 minutes to enjoy the 42-13 victory over Michigan (see observations).

After that, it was time to move on, time for the second-ranked Nittany Lions to prepare for the next step down a treacherous path. That involves a visit to No. 6 Ohio State next weekend, with another trip, to No. 18 Michigan State, to follow.

Franklin wasn’t about to discuss the Buckeyes within that precious 37-minute window. There will be time enough for that in the days to come.

But what seems apparent is the Lions have the ability and adaptability to run with the Big Ten’s big dogs — that if they lose next week, it will be because of the Buckeyes’ strengths, not their weaknesses.

On Saturday night, PSU was as good as it has been against a quality team in Franklin’s three-plus seasons on the job, outgaining the No. 19 Wolverines, 506-269, and unleashing Saquon Barkley and Trace McSorley for three touchdowns apiece.

“Everybody’s been saying we haven’t been playing anybody this year,” wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “Obviously we played somebody today.”

Somebody who came away pretty, pretty impressed.

“They hit us on quite a few plays that we have defensed well this year,” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said. “I thought their execution was really good tonight, right from the beginning.”

As in, the second play from scrimmage. That’s when Barkley lined up in the Wildcat — a formation the Lions hadn’t shown all year — and zipped 69 yards for a touchdown. He then capped their second possession by scoring on an option pitch, something else PSU hadn’t done much this season.

Franklin had said in the days leading up to the game the Lions had something up their sleeves, that they were waiting to spring some stratagems on the Big Ten heavyweights. The wrinkles, he added Saturday, were things they had worked on during the preseason.

“The fact that we have some recall helps,” he said.

So too did the fact they had a week off to prepare for the Wolverines.

“We watched, probably, seven different games of Michigan film,” Hamilton said. “It really helped a lot.”

Michigan cut the gap to 14-13, but then the Lions ran away and hid. It was difficult to find fault with any aspect of their performance, though Franklin tried. He thought the defense could have handled sudden change better, seeing as Michigan charged downfield for a touchdown after McSorley threw a first-quarter interception.

Barkley tried, too. On a day when he generated 176 all-purpose yards — 108 of them on the ground — the Heisman hopeful fixated on his second-quarter drop of a McSorley pass, on a wheel route down the left sideline.

“Sometimes I overthink and I just put myself in bad situations,” Barkley said. “I should have just caught it first. I was thinking score. I was thinking about catching the ball. I felt the safety. I felt his presence. I wanted to try to make him miss and find a way to get into the end zone.”

He atoned with a 42-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter, though he juggled that one, too.

“I was able to run through it,” he said. “It humbles you again, makes you realize you’ve got to put a little more work in. You’ve got to find a way to make those plays.”

Especially now that the celebration, brief as it was, is over. It’s time to take another step down a treacherous path, time to find out where it might lead.

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.

Gameday
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.

Penn State's leading defense depends on swarming to ball

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Penn State's leading defense depends on swarming to ball

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — James Franklin's whistle is the last one Penn State players hear at practice, and sometimes the coach will hesitate before he blows plays dead.

He's waiting for a satisfactory number of white helmets to charge the ball carrier. It doesn't usually take long for him to see what he wants — eight, maybe nine defenders all converging on the football.

"You can take an average defense and be a good defense just by doing that one thing," Franklin said. "I think what we've been able to do is take a good defense and take it to that next category, whatever you call it, by doing a great job of running to the football."

It's helped cue a run in which the No. 2 Nittany Lions have allowed an FBS-low 9 points per game. They'll look to continue the trend against No. 19 Michigan on Saturday. They might need to in order to keep their national championship hopes alive, as the Wolverines will bring the nation's top overall defense to Happy Valley for Saturday's primetime showdown at Beaver Stadium.

The Wolverines are allowing just 223 yards per game and, like the Nittany Lions, are swarming to make tackles.

"It's not something you think about, it's just something that happens," Penn State linebacker Koa Farmer said. "You don't really see yourself not running to the football because it's so natural."

And because it's been stressed repeatedly over Franklin's three and a half seasons in charge.

In addition to his late whistles, Franklin will regularly step away from interviews with local reporters to scream at his players to run off the practice field. Further, he can point out statistics -- such as his team's plus-12 turnover differential — supporting his claim that collective hustle makes a difference.

Without it, Franklin knows the 17 takeaways his team has this year could be much closer to the nine it had at this point last season.

"Think about how many times last year the ball was on the ground as a fumble and we didn't come up with it," Franklin said. "This year we're coming up with those fumbles because we got more people around the ball."

Franklin's philosophy is echoed by his defensive coordinator Brent Pry, who's based his schemes on one principle.

"We're a staff that believes in team speed," Pry said. "It's noticeable right now, especially in the back seven. I think we're running really well."

Pry has confidence that Penn State's athletic group of linebackers can roam sideline to sideline. Starters Jason Cabinda, Manny Bowen and Farmer — a converted safety — have combined to help on 49 tackles. On the back end, safeties Marcus Allen and Troy Apke and corners Grant Haley and Christian Campbell have chipped in 34 helpers.

His defense's ability to pursue and gang tackle gives Pry even more confidence to call blitzes. It's made Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wary, too. Harbaugh said Monday he wasn't yet sure of the best way to attack the Penn State's defense.

"Don't see them giving up a lot of big plays in the running game or the passing game, which means they're really sound," Harbaugh said. "You can already see really good players in the front seven and in the secondary. They get to the ball, they close up gaps and they're rarely out of position."

Franklin might as well have repeated Harbaugh's concern Tuesday. Penn State's coach worked with Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown at Maryland and sees the same qualities that make his own unit so effective.

"The way they play defensive football, we're going to have some challenges," Franklin said. "You're going to be watching two of the best defensive coordinators in college football. Which probably doesn't get any more Big Ten than that, defensive football."