James Franklin was full of praise for the Ohio State Buckeyes in his weekly press conference, and while some (myself included) might be weary of Saturday’s match up, Franklin said the bye week was productive. "We were able to rest our players, we were able to work on technique and fundamentals and some scheme things that need to improve. We were able to scrimmage the young guys. We cut some things back to make sure that we're fresh and healthy. We're looking at numbers and studying some things. I think we're somewhere around 46 (scholarship) players that are actually playing in games, so we’re making sure that we're making really good decisions there."
Despite the obvious challenge that Ohio State presents, Coach Franklin said the team is excited and optimistic.
Q. What do you see from the team leadership after back-to-back losses and what have you tried to instill in the team in the last ten days?
COACH FRANKLIN: It's a little bit of what I was just speaking on. You look at our team; on defense we have Mike Hull and C.J. Olaniyan, which are both seniors, starters and playing at a high level. On offense, we have Miles Dieffenbach who is a senior and hasn't played all year, and a sophomore quarterback, so there is just a different dynamic there.
I talked about the guys taking ownership in the team. I think we’ve really seen a shift in the last week. I've really seen a shift in the last few days of guys really understanding what it's going to take to be successful in our system.
We’ve seen guys taking ownership, guys coming into my office and having really good meetings and asking really good questions and giving really good feedback.
I think that's been really, really important. If there is a concern or if there is a question, we should talk about it and work through it together. I've seen some really good things. I've seen some progress. We get text messages from players late at night and you can tell they're thinking about ways that they can help the team and maybe make a bigger impact. I think we're making some really good progress with that when it comes to a leadership perspective.
Q. You talked about how Christian has grown in terms of dealing with pressure and inconsistency. How he's grown in that way? From a leadership perspective, what you have seen from him throughout the season on the sideline?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think where the leadership is important and where it's showing up this year is through adversity. It's easy in some ways to lead when things are going well. When you're having some challenges and issues, how do you handle that? I think that really shows people's true colors. I think Christian is a guy that's been great about taking responsibility. He’s like all of us, when times get tough he is asking what he can do better or what he can do more of. Like a number of our guys right now, he continues to find a way to help this team be successful.
I think when you come into the season with so much focus put on Christian, he's handled everything extremely well and now with the adversity that we've been going through the last couple of weeks, I think he's handled that extremely well. We talk about perseverance, we talk about staying positive and being optimistic and he's done that. We had a captain's meeting last week, and he had some really good things to say and some really good input. I think that's important.
Q. You guys are used to playing night games already, but you've been in hostile stadiums. What do you expect from the atmosphere Saturday night and can you speak to the need to kind of balance the offense a bit more moving forward?
COACH FRANKLIN: Obviously we would love to have a huge, home field advantage. I anticipate us having 107,000 Penn State fans wearing white, screaming and going crazy, making it really difficult for (Ohio State) to communicate.
If you look at them, they really haven't played a whole lot of games on the road this year. They did play at Maryland, but that's the only true road game they’ve played. The Navy game was at a neutral site. So I think coming on the road in this type of environment is going to be difficult and challenging for them.
I would love to see how many times our fans can get them to get a delay of game or jump off sides or whatever it may be. I know our defense is looking forward to that advantage.
Obviously balance on offense is something we've been talking about all year long. The games that we have had some balance and have been able to establish somewhat of a running game, we've been able to do some nice things offensively. That's something we're not going to shy away from. We're still committed to doing that.
We worked on it really hard all last week, we're going to do that again this week, and that's not going to change. We're going to stay positive. I do think there has been a game or two that we aborted the run a little too early and that's as much my fault as anybody's. We're going to stick to that, stick to the running game and keep committing to finding creative ways to help our guys and put them in position to be successful.
One of the other things we talked about is that a lot of times as a coach you keep trying to help your guys by doing more and coming up with different schemes. We have made the argument as a staff that less is more. Let's get good at the things that we can hang our hat on and go from there.
Q. Last week you mentioned the balance of getting the fans excited, between the balance of getting fans excited without setting up false expectations. With, as you say, 46 available players on the roster, what do you consider "reasonable expectations" for this team this season?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think the biggest thing is that I want our players and I want our fans and I want the community to feel really good about the direction of the program and how we play.
That's the thing that's important to me, that we come out and we play up to our abilities each week. I want people to be very, very comfortable with the direction of the program, where it's going and how our guys are playing and the type of experience they're having; that’s on the football field, in the community with all the community service we're doing and in the classroom.
I want them to have a great experience and I want our fans to be proud of the product that we're putting on the field each week. What that means in wins and losses? I'm not sure. What I do know is we're going to work like crazy this week to get our guys prepared to go out and play Ohio State and play well. At the end of the year we'll look back and we'll look at that and see where we're at, but right now we're focused on Ohio State.
Q. You've obviously been in college football for a while now, and you mentioned the 46 scholarship players before. Is this the toughest football challenge you've had in your career? And by that I mean not just winning for the future but winning this season with what you have and if not what was the biggest challenge?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think it's very similar (to our last school) and where I would say it's different is when you are at a place like Penn State it's the expectations. Everybody talked about all these things before the season started, but once the season starts you have to find a way to get it done.
There is an expectation here, there is a culture of winning here, it's been here for a long time and we embrace that. That's one of the reasons why we want to be here and why we were so excited about coming to Penn State. I think that's where it's a little bit different.
I think some of the challenges that we're having are similar to challenges that we've been through in the past, but the challenge is the difference in expectations. I've also told you, I think there is nothing better than having 107,000 fans when things are going well. When you have challenges there are 107,000 critics and as a coach you try to insulate the players and the staff from that as much as you can but with social media it makes it difficult.
Thirty-five years from now at my retirement party I'm going to show you guys all the stuff that's sent to me and the rest of the coaches on Twitter. It's amazing. Some of it is really constructive criticism, which I appreciate, and others, I wouldn't necessarily describe as constructive. I told you guys I read everything. The last couple of weeks I've read a little bit less. That's part of it and we embrace it all.
Q. You mentioned that Ohio State’s Joey Bosa jumps out the most to you guys. What does stand out specifically about him on film and what are some keys to slowing down an end like that when he's in a groove like he is?
COACH FRANKLIN: He's a rare combination. You’re looking at a guy who is 6-foot-5, 280 pounds and is able to play with quickness and to play with power. A lot of times you can find guys that are extremely strong and powerful and explosive at the point of attack, but maybe don't have the quickness as a pass rusher. He's got a rare combination that he can beat you with speed and quickness but he can also beat you with power.
Those guys are hard to find and they don't come around very often. I think that's what makes him a challenge. Obviously, we need to be aware of him. You try to look at it from an offensive perspective in pass protection, and in the run game. You know where your single blocks are going to be. They do a nice job about where they play him. They play him at defensive end, but they will also move them inside to defensive tackle, a little bit; like we've done with (Anthony) Zettel. So you can't say you know he's always going to be the left defensive end or always going to be the three-technique. They do a nice job with that and it creates challenges and we're going to go back to technique and fundamentals and see where we can help double team him as much as we can.
Q. Your defense has played well overall the whole season. How can you do a better job of making more game changing plays on that side of the ball? Creating turnovers? Making it easier for your offense?
COACH FRANKLIN: If you look at drive start average, I think that's been a big factor in the games and turnovers usually play into that. I think our defense has played extremely well, but getting some of those game changing plays can help. The interception returns for touchdowns, the punt returns for touchdowns, setting up our offense with great field position. Special teams can help in those areas as well.
Overall, everybody has been really pleased with how our defense has played but you always want more, you always want better and for us to go from a good defense to a great defense or elite defense, that's where the turnovers come in. That's one of the things I noticed this week studying Ohio State, the offense is playing at a high level but they're also getting turnovers, which are helping. They’ve had turnovers for touchdowns and turnovers for field position.
Q. I just wanted to ask about the two freshmen receivers, Blacknall and Godwin. They're rotating and do you expect they will continue to this week? In what areas are you seeing the most growth from those guys from the start of camp to this point in the season?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think they've handled it extremely well. One of those guys will play in the 11 package and both of those guys will back up those (Hamilton and Lewis) when they need a blow. One of the things they're doing a nice job of is mentally doing what they need to do with very few mental mistakes. They're making the plays that they're supposed to make and catching the ball. The next step is to get them to play with more confidence and play faster so they can break some tackles, make some people miss and create some big plays.
I've been very pleased with them and what they've been able to do to this point. You think about the inexperience we had at the wide receiver position with really (Lewis) being the only guy with any considerable amount of returning playing time.
The fact that Hamilton’s played extremely well has been good for us, so really the next step for those guys is to become more feared playmakers. To be able to take the short pass and turn it into an 80 yard touchdown, being able to catch a crossing route, break a tackle, make a guy miss and take it to the house.
We need more explosive plays. If you look at our offense earlier in the year that's one of the things we were doing, we were creating big plays and we haven't had as many of them lately. There are a lot of factors that go into that, but seeing those guys take the next step, really all four or five wide outs, but especially those two young guys.
Q. How do you feel it worked with John Donovan getting a different vantage point on the field and will he go back upstairs? Could you address the organization part, that way and is there a chance that Miles Dieffenbach could see action?
COACH FRANKLIN: I'm glad we tried it – having John on the field. It's something that happened against UCF and something that's happened in the past. We will probably go back to John being in the booth. What happens is there is another step of information that has to happen. When John is in the booth he can see the hash, the down and distance, and the yard line. Sometimes when you're on the sideline, you can't see those things so now you have to ask up to the people in the booth to get that information and it's just one more step. It costs you another two or three seconds on the play clock.
I just feel like it's in our best interest long term to keep John in the booth. That's how we've done it for the last four years and I think we're much more comfortable and have a better system that way.
When it comes to Miles, it's really a week to week thing. It's not just a mental thing or it’s not just the physical aspect of the injury, it's also the mental aspect of the injury. I think he's doing some really nice things. I think the bye weeks were huge for him. If he's ready this week, we would love him to be back, we would love to have him in there, because I do think having him next to Donovan is really valuable. Those guys have experience together and communicate extremely well together. We would love to have him. To think he's going to go from not playing at all to starting, that's probably not going to happen, but if you can get him for a series or two, that will be great but we'll see how that plays out.
Q. Can you talk about what you've been able to do to address the punting issues during the bye week and whether that's personnel or scheme? Also, speak to the importance of the punting game when you're in a lot of field position games the way you guys have been.
COACH FRANKLIN: I think it's a huge factor. We talked about drive start average earlier and that’s been a big factor for us. We went into this season knowing that we had two inexperienced, young punters that we felt good about. Typically what you see in young punters is they have the ability to crank out a 57- or 60-yard punt, but what we talk about all the time, what's more valuable, is can you consistently punt the ball 40 yards rather than knocking a 60 yarder and then a 30 yarder. Just like any position, being able to do your job consistently is key.
Like every position we want it to be an open competition. Daniel (Pasquariello) has done some nice things. You guys have seen we tried to get him some reps earlier in the year. He had an opportunity to take advantage of that, and at the time he didn't. You could see that again this week, through practice. Today we'll get a chance to evaluate those guys again. They both are great young men. They both are working extremely hard. They both have the ability, I think, not only to be good but to be special.
They just need to keep working at it. I think we had some things, a few games where our protection wasn't the way it needed to be, but besides that, overall this season, they’ve been good. We just need to make sure we're punting the ball more consistently. Our coverage has been pretty good, it's really just the consistency with the location and the distance. We have had a few that we have shanked out of bounds and put our defense in a tough spot and our defense has actually held up and done a nice job on a few of them, but then that backs up where our offense is starting.
One problem compounds another.
On L.J. Sr.:
Q. There will be a guy on the other sideline this weekend, Larry Johnson, who played a major role at Penn State, who mentored some of these players and was like a father figure to them. How do you prepare to see him physically on the other side, that mentality to have that realization when you get out there, there he is on the other sideline?
COACH FRANKLIN: I have tremendous respect for Larry and a tremendous respect for the previous regime. All the positive things that happened on the football field, all the positive things that happened in the classroom. Tremendous respect. I've known Larry for a long time, not only his reputation as a coach but also as a recruiter. I remember when I was at a previous school I used to see him all the time because we recruited the same areas.
So I have a tremendous respect, but that's kind of where it is this week. We're trying to get our players prepared for the schemes and the environment and the things that they're going to have to face, and that's what our focus is on.