It's hard to believe that another Penn State football regular season is wrapping up, but we finally have bowl game hope again to get us through December (thanks so much, NCAA).
Last week's loss to Illinois was confusing, sad, and just really upsetting. At least this week it's laid out pretty clearly: the Spartans are 13.5 point favorites (in Beaver Stadium, le sigh). So heat up some leftovers, drink heavily, take a nap on Saturday afternoon, and speak loudly over your relatives when they try to tell you the final score (I'm a realist now, optimism was exhausting).
Just kidding. Keep the faith and cheer for the good guys, but still drink heavily so the offense doesn't look AS bad as we know it is. I'll let Coach Franklin take it from here.
So about that punt...
We feel like we made the right decision there. It's the fourth quarter, the offensive drive started with two minutes and 46 seconds to go on the clock with three timeouts. Offense called two run plays, one pass option which was a naked (bootleg), did not pick up the first down. You're talking about fourth down from your own territory and they need a field goal to win. So, obviously looking back at it after the way it played out, you'd love to go for it on fourth down and convert. But if you don't get it, they're in field goal range and the game is over.
We want to always play to our strength. Our strength has been defense all year long. So, you punt in that situation, and you put your best unit on the field to win the game for you.
Is that probably what people want to hear? No. But I think that's the right decision, and we'd make that again based on, again, how this season has gone and how our defense has played this year. So, I did want to mention that.
Q. What will you remember most about this senior class, and what will it mean to you to have Ryan Keiser there on Saturday?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think a couple things. I think, obviously, with this being my first year and not being here over the last three or four years with these guys makes it a little bit different. But I think being here and now kind of understanding and more in depth, the history and traditions at Penn State, I think what we've been through the last three years and what these guys have meant, how they've stuck with this university and the football program and the community as well have been tremendous leaders, have been tremendous ambassadors both on and off the field and in the classroom. It's significant. I think everybody in our program, all the players kind of look up to them, which is typically the case in most programs. But I think it's magnified, obviously, from what they've been through.
Mike Hull is a great example of that. Hard working, bluecollar, humble, appreciative of everything that he stands for and everything this program is about as well. I'm just really, really proud of those guys, and I want to send them out the right way. I want them to have a great experience. That would be this game, and it would be going forward as well. So very, very proud of those guys.
Q. James, you mentioned a couple of times the missed tackles in the Illinois game. I was wondering, how much did you think the team missed Brandon Bell out there? Can you just kind of assess his impact on the defense this year?
COACH FRANKLIN: Well, first of all, I thought Jason (Cabinda) for a true freshman has played well all year long, and I thought he played well on Saturday. But not having Brandon Bell, I think changes things. I don't think there is any doubt he's a starter for a reason for us. I think that did have an impact on us. Same thing, you could make the same thing with (Ryan) Keiser, although I think Marcus (Allen) is playing well as well.
When you lose starters, it has an impact. So I thought Jason stepped up and did a great job. I think he learned from it. I feel like we can win with him, but I don't think there is any doubt losing Brandon Bell has an impact on us.
We're in a situation probably to go a little bit further with that, as you guys know. Whenever we lose anybody, it's significant, and maybe more significant than maybe some other places.
Q. The last two games you guys moved the ball down the field pretty well on the first drive and struggled after that. At what point do you switch from what you wanted to do coming into the game, and what you think you have to do based on how the defense has responded to that?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think it's a combination throughout. I think that's a big reason of why we played the end of the game the way we played it. I think it's a feel; it's a feel. One of the things I think we have to do a better job of is handling adversity. We went right down the field running and passing, and then we did it again and we had the mishandled snap on the field goal. From that point on, we didn't look like the same team. Then we started making some mistakes and doing things like that.
So that's one of the things we talked about on Sunday is we've got to handle adversity better on that side of the ball. When things don't go well or something happens, which it's always going to be that way. You're not going to play a perfect game for 60 minutes. Being resilient enough to push through those things. That's where having experience and maturity and leadership in all three phases is really important for you.
Q. Looking at the tape from last week, what did you see on special teams? Obviously a couple things didn't go the way you'd like them to. Were there changes you can make or just mental errors that can be addressed from week to week?
COACH FRANKLIN: Are there specific ones you're talking about?
Q. The off-sides on the punt, the hold and the kickoff (that died in the wind). Were there things that just kind of happened through each game? Were they mental?
COACH FRANKLIN: I'm glad you said that. Specifically the ones you're talking about. The PAT and field goal, Keiser is our holder, I think (Chris) Gulla has done a great job coming in and replacing Keiser and done a great job. We didn't do a great job in that situation. Bobbled a snap.
The kickoff was as freakish of a play as I've seen. I know everybody's saying that we should have moved up here and we should have. But you'll see even if you watch the tape, when the kick came, they all backed up because it was hit well and it was going. If you were standing there, it literally got to a point and I've never seen anything (like it); it spun, stopped and dropped straight down. So I think that was a freakish play. I really do. What was the last one you mentioned?
Q. Offsides on the punt.
COACH FRANKLIN: Yeah, the off-sides, that was a lapse of focus because we had our Dline in. We were punt safe which is basically you keep your defense in, and you have a returner back there. Our two defensive tackles that were closest to the ball flinched. Now, was the right guard possibly moving? It didn't get called. So no, he wasn't. But the two guys closest to the ball that shouldn't be keying on the offensive guard, they should be keying the ball, they flinched, and you can't. That was a critical play in the game. So we've got to clean those things up. We've got to improve, there is no doubt about it.
Q. Could you assess the last month for Christian Hackenberg, how he's played and how he's handled the way he's played?
COACH FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think, obviously, Christian has got really high standards and expectations for himself and who he wants to be and how he wants to play. I think there is frustration there with a lot of different things. But I think, again, considering he's a true sophomore and he's 19 years old, I think he's handled it pretty well. He was one of the guys in my office Saturday night, as one of the captains talking about these things.
I had a bunch of individual meetings with guys on Sunday as well about things that I think we could do better or be doing differently. So I think Hack's been good. I think considering everything that's happened and how it's all played out, I think he's been good. I think he's getting better every single day. There are some things that we need to continue to work on. Footwork, fundamentals, technique, things like that which are going to be helpful. But I think the other thing is continuing to develop the guys around him, which I've talked about before. It's all of those things. It's not one factor. It's all of those things.
I think more than anything Hack's really, really competitive. He's really passionate about what he does and how he does it and has really high standards and expectations. There is nobody harder on Hack than Hack. I think that's something that I know we have to be aware of as a staff.
Q. I wanted to ask you about Christian's durability this year. What do you have to say for all the hits he's taken, and he's bounced back? Also, it looked like he took a big shot and was bouncing around for a while. Is he okay?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think all the work with Christian, and the rest of the players and Coach (Dwight) Galt and his (performance enhancement) staff, as well as Tim Bream and their (training) staff has been really helpful for us this year and even years going forward making sure we're as durable as we possibly can be. I think a commitment to the nutrition, commitment to sleep, commitment to getting in and getting treatment, not just when you have issues, but just taking care of your body, getting in the cold tubs and hot tubs. I think our guys have committed to that.
This week is going to be helpful. We put a priority on sleep, letting those guys sleep in. They don't have class. Doing some things; we took them to the movies last night as well. Doing some different things like that from a morale standpoint and also just from a physiological standpoint. So those things have been good.
But I think he's held up extremely well especially under the circumstances, but he's feeling it. He's feeling it. Sundays are tough getting in there, but he usually bounces back really well.
Q. It seems that more of Christian's struggles have come when he's been moving maybe off the run. He's made some good throws from the pocket. Now that the offensive line is healthier and protecting him, would you like to keep him in the pocket a little bit more?
COACH FRANKLIN: Well, it's a combination of things. That was one of the big reasons why we were so aggressive in trying to run the ball on Saturday. Our plan was let's run the ball, let's play good defense, let's play good special teams and find a way to get this win. Mix in the pass when we felt like we needed to.
I felt being in the pocket is his strength. But the pocket has not been a strength of our offense. So moving the pocket and calling movement passes or nakeds and things like that is a way to protect him.
So do I think he's probably better standing in the pocket and going through his progressions? Yes. But that isn't necessarily who we've been able to be as an offense this year.
Q. Also, you mentioned the runpass option on the third down where he came up short. In the Northwestern game he took a good shot. Could you review that play relative to Hamilton and also what you saw? A lot of people wondered should he have maybe cut inside or lowered his shoulder; how did you see that?
COACH FRANKLIN: It was a naked. So we protected the backside. When we came off the fake, nobody would be in his face. We left the tight end there to protect him. We wanted to come out.
If a throw was wide open, take it. If not, go get the first down for us. Go run for it. Keep the clock running, move the clock, move the sticks and go from there.
I felt like we had a good situation. Did not work out that way. Looking at the tape, I felt like we had a good situation. Did not work out that way.
Q. Your offense has scored 20 points one time in the last seven games. I know there are a lot of different reasons for that. But my question is specifically about the play calling, which has probably come under as much criticism as any other part of the team. I'm just wondering, do you believe that criticism of John Donovan is fair or not, and how would you assess the play calling?
COACH FRANKLIN: I kind of keep getting this question all year long, and I kind of keep answering it the same way, so it's really not going to change. Every year at the end of the season we'll evaluate everything like we always do.
We've been talking since last summer, and really the end of this spring that we were going to have challenges up front. The game of football is played on the defensive line, and it just happens to be that our defense is really good, and we have probably one of the best defensive lines in the twodeep in the conference. We went into this year with losing our captain on the offensive line (Miles Dieffenbach), and moving two defensive linemen over (Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia), one of which was a starter going into the season. So we talked about it. I know everybody is looking to find answers and reasons. But did we have high expectations and standards of who and what we wanted to be? Yes. But am I also trying to be realistic going into the season of what it was? That as well.
We tried to talk about these things ahead of time, and the question always went back to Christian Hackenberg. I kept bringing up to you guys it was going to be about surrounding Christian. So really, you keep asking me, but the answer's not going to change. I understand it. We're going to evaluate everything, and I understand the disappointment. But the answer is really not going to change.
Q. I know you said before the season that John (Donovan) would call plays. I'm just curious, what input do you have on the play calling throughout a game if any? Are you guys introducing anything and trying to limit the playbook to help these guys out to kind of streamline stuff?
COACH FRANKLIN: I'll answer this question the same way I've answered it all year long. We sit down throughout the week as a staff and come up with a game plan and make recommendations. We watch formation tapes. We watch down and distance situations. We watch situational and explosive play tapes. We watch every play that we possibly can to get a feel for who and what they are. Then on game day I'll make recommendations, I'll make suggestions on things that I'm feeling or seeing or thinking that we need.
It was a little different in the past when he was up in the booth and I was down on the sideline because sometimes you don't get the feel from the players of what you need at the time. So that's kind of how it's been. We do it more in the game plan. I think I've mentioned to you guys before, I think there are four to six calls a game that are important calls. I think the rest of them are basically what you've decided what you've decided all week you're going to call these plays on first down. You're going to call these plays on second down. You're going to call these plays on third down, and it's everybody's input, and the offensive coordinator and myself put that thing together and we go from there.
Q. I was kind of thinking big picture here. What would you say are two to three areas where this offense has gotten better from UCF until now? Things that we don't notice, but you guys have.
COACH FRANKLIN: I think actually, and this is going to surprise you that I'm going to say this, that our offensive line has gotten better. The issue is in the first four games people didn't really know who and what we were going to be. They had seen a weakness, and now the entire defensive game plan is about attacking those things over and over and over again. Typically what people are doing, they're lining up in what we call a solid front, basically covering every single offensive lineman. So we got five individual blocks and you're not able to help each other. Or they're lining up in four down or three down and bringing complete chaos every single play. We're seeing I think on average about a 20 percent increase in each team we play in terms of the amount of blitzing and twisting of what they typically do. It spikes up, because for young lines that's the way to expose them.
Now if you've got a veteran line and you twist, you handle that the right way, you increase defenses because when you're moving lateral you have a chance to get walled and create seams when you have an inexperienced offensive line that causes issues.
If I'm working together with Jeff, and we're blocking you and double-teaming up to the linebacker, and I know where you're at, that helps. Now when you go here and the defensive end comes here and the linebacker runs over top, now you have to be really disciplined with your footwork and your fundamentals and your training to trust that. So I actually think they've improved, but we're seeing more than you typically would see, and I understand that.
I think those things have proven. I think the understanding of what we're trying to do and why has improved. It's the consistency and the execution that we haven't been able to do. I think that's been the biggest factors. The moving parts that we've had on the offensive line have magnified it.
Q. Can you tell me a little about Brent Pry and his role on this team this year? He's got some help from Mike Hull, a senior leader of that linebacking corps. Can you tell me about how he coaches on the field and how he's been able to have the depth he has with the group?
COACH FRANKLIN: I think Brent's done a really good job. I left his office before coming over here. Brent's a very mature guy. Brent's a coach's kid. I think you guys know this. Brent's father (Jim) was my offensive coordinator in college. We go way back. But Brent's been around the game and learning the game his whole life, even when he didn't know he was learning it, just by being around it. He's really good with his players on the field. He probably doesn't get as much credit as he should with working with Bob (Shoop) and what we do defensively. They were both highly successful defensive coordinators, and we hired them to come together and work together.
He's a really good sounding board for me; him and Coach Galt. I think he's done a great job. I think the combination of him and Mike Hull is really what you're looking for at every position. You want a really strong coach that relates well with the players and you want some senior leadership that sets the model, the standard of excellence we want here at Penn State.
Those two guys worked together to get the whole group. Mike has the ability to make people around him better. I think he's had a profound impact on (Brandon) Bell and (Nyeem) Wartman. I think Coach Pry has as well. Then what was able to happen is you had some young, talented players behind them that could work in on special teams, could work in on defense, and as the season has gone, their roles have grown.
I think Brent does a really good job of managing all those different things. I think he's really valuable. I think he's really valuable.
I mentioned this before, he was offered a head coaching job at a Division I school and turned it down to come here and be part of what we're doing here and be part of the staff. I think a big part of that is being from Altoona and loving Penn State and what this place stands for. I think a lot of it is our relationship and our family's relationship and believing in what we're doing and where we're going. So I think the world of him.
My last thing to everybody, I know you've got to ask these questions, and I respect it and I understand. I'm more than willing to come in here every single week and answer the questions. But I also want you guys to understand that I believe in these kids and I believe in our coaching staff and I believe in what we're doing. I believe in the foundation we're laying and where we're going. I'm more positive and I'm more determined than I've ever been. I think times like this are probably the most important for laying the foundation for the future.
So, I respect the job that you guys do and the questions that you have to ask, but what you're going to find from me though is we're always going to be really introspective and evaluate what we're doing and can we do things better. But, we have a plan. We're going to tweak the plan when we need to, but we're going to stick to our plan. The biggest part of the plan is believing in our people and believing in ourselves and what we're doing.