Almost immediately, the usual noise from journalist conversations was cancelled out by the gentle sound of a small brook trickling in the background. Then, a repetitive, soothing chorus of “ohm” led by Sean Spencer and Matt Limegrover filled the air and persuaded our breathing to match its slack tempo. Within 60 seconds, the entire press room emptied its nervous anticipation of Pitt week barbs. And with a canvas backdrop of the Himalayas borrowed from the Art department framing the rear of the stage, Penn State coach James Franklin, in full Lama regalia, strode effortlessly to the podium.
The flowing robes, the grace... Striking.
“The water flows over the rock, making it smooth. But the rock does not grow angry.”
“Progressions, blitz dogs - the ball’s natural home is in the end zone.”
Wow. Completely different. Peace and harmony reigned.
And Then The Presser Started
COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Beautiful day out there. Appreciate you guys coming, again, to support and cover Penn State Football. We appreciate it. Do a quick review of the previous game, and then get into our opponent this week obviously.
Our Buffalo offensive Players of the Week from the coaches perspective on offense was Jahan Dotson and Pat Freiermuth. On defense was Cam Brown and John Reid, and then on special teams was Jordan stout and John than Sutherland.
So really excited about those guys, and what they were able to do on Saturday. Want to be able to continue to build.
You know, obviously the injury of the Buffalo player, Evan, you never want to see that happen in college football, really any sports. Got a chance to go over and see the family and the young man, and seems to be doing well. I think that kicker/specialist/long snapper community is tight. They all know each other, especially our guys who are over there supporting him, as well. We wish him and his family nothing but the best and a speedy recovery.
Obviously this game, you know, we’re excited about it, and obviously from a historical perspective what this game has meant to the state and to college football, from a geographical perspective, we get it, as well. The same discussion that comes up all the time is how we approach these games and we don’t approach them any different. That will never change.
Do we understand that this is a big game to the media and to the fans and to the lettermen and college football, yeah, we are not burying our heads in the sand. We understand the significance and the impact of this game, but our approach does not change.
You know, we believe Sunday through Friday, that we are going to prepare the same week-in and week-out. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing or what you’re doing or where the game is going to be played or what the weather is going to be like, none of those things change.
So we’re excited about the opportunity to play Pitt Saturday in our stadium. Obviously we need our fans to create a really, really challenging environment. We have an opportunity to have a distinct home-field advantage, distinct home-field advantage at our place. We’ve averaged 104,000 for the first two games. We need that thing to be busting at the seams. I think we’ve had has high as 110. We need that on Saturday, and we need the players on the field to feel that 110,000. I want everybody in the state to feel that 110,000.
You know, we are blessed and we are fortunate to play at Penn State. We are blessed and fortunate to have the fan base we have. We need that stadium rocking on Saturday at 12:00 like no stadium has ever rocked before. That’s my challenge. We have to do this together.
Obviously Coach Narduzzi, got a lot of respect for him as a football coach. That team has taken on his personality. They are physical. They are tough. They are hard-nosed. Obviously that shows up on the defensive side of the ball, the style of defense that they play. He’s been doing it for a long time. They have been doing it at a high level. For a while there, there was a period of time in college football, probably four to six years where everybody was trying to copycat their style of defense, what he’s done at Pitt and what they did at Michigan State. But obviously has done a tremendous job.
Obviously you look at, you know, his success at Pitt and you look at two significant upsets over Miami and over Clemson, the No. 2 ranked teams in the country. So they are going to be used to playing these types of games in these types of environment.
15 starters returning. You know, you also get into this situation with new NCAA rules and guys leaving one program and going to another. We have a young man that was part of our program for four years, John Petrishen, who is now at Pitt.
So when that happened, we knew that we were going to have to make some changes at that point. So we have changed -- we didn’t wait till this week to do it. We did it right when that was announced, but obviously we had to change all of our signals, you know, especially on defense and on offense, as well, but especially on defense because he knows all of our signals and those types of things.
That was something we had to do right away. Obviously, again, talking about this game meaning a lot to people, we’ve got guys like Marcus Allen, who is with the Pittsburgh Steelers and obviously in that facility all the time, so he’s going to hear it. It’s going to be very, very important to him. Me and Marcus have talked a bunch already. We’ll continue to talk all week long.
Got Tom Bradley that’s there. Obviously this game is going to be really important to him, so he can walk around town and walk around that facility, but I’m going to talk to Tom all week long, and then John Norwig, as well. Those guys, I know it’s extra important to them based on where they are at. But we’ll see how that goes.
Kind of get into offensively. Mark Whipple, a guy that’s been in the profession for a long time. Very well known and respected. Mark’s been an offensive coordinator or a head coach almost the entirety of his career. Him and coach expense worked together at UMass for a number of years and has done a great job and has got great experience.
I think you’re still going to see Pat Narduzzi’s personality all over that offense in terms of running the football, but obviously mark has great experience both in the run game and in the pass game.
Five returners starting on that side of the ball. They are multiple formations, multiple personnel groups, tempos. Fullback will be involved, as well. They are going to play with an extra tackle, so they will have six offensive lineman on the field. They will go 11-personnel, they will go 22-personnel, they will go 21-personnel. We have been impressed by Kenny Pickett, Davis, Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack. Taysir started his career at Indiana and has now been at Pitt for the last two years.
Randy Bates, obviously, again, got a lot of respect for this defense, how they play. He also was at Northwestern before that. We’ve got a lot of respect for Northwestern and their program and what they do on the defensive side of the ball.
Six starters returning there. Base front, they are a 4-3 defense. They will go to a three down defense on third and five or more. Shows up there. And then coverage, you know, they are what we call a cover four quarters defense where the four defensive backs will all have a quarter of the field.
A lot of times, they will play press on the two outside receivers. Be very aggressive at the line of scrimmage, very hands-on. You know, very, very physical at the line of scrimmage, and then they will play variations of some fire zone coverages, as well.
We have been impressed with Mr. Twyman, the defensive tackle. Kylan Johnson, a linebacker No. 28. Their cornerback No, 11, Dane Jackson, and then obviously we are very familiar with Damar Hamlin and Paris Ford through the recruiting process and what they have done at Pitt so far.
Then special teams, I think it’s been one of the strengths of their team, really, for the last four years, Andre Powell, who I know very well, does a great job with them on special teams. They have got four starters returning in those units in terms of specialists. So got a lot of respect for Andre and what they do playing complimentary football there.
So that’s my notes. I didn’t mention, I apologize, the special teams Player of the Week last week was Isaac Lutz. So I apologize for missing Mr. Lutz. Played extremely well. Is doing some really, really good things and there’s a lot of excitement and buzz in our program about Isaac and what he brings to our team specifically in special teams. He’s a guy that wants to own that. That’s where he knows he can make the most significant impact on our team and is doing a tremendous job with that right now.
Q. Why was Buffalo so successful on third down, and how can the defense improve in those situations?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, first of all, I think they are very well-coached. They have a really good plan. I think a lot of their third down success came from early first and second down success. They were going to run the ball. Even if they got two, three yards, they were going to stay as much on schedule as much as they possibly could.
It’s interesting when you watch the game, we hit our run goal of yards per attempt in the running game, but, they were able to stay on schedule. So they created a bunch of third and shorts, third and manageable situation where is they had the ability to run or pass. They also kept their tight ends or backs in, or slow released them and chipped them out on the way out, so we weren’t able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. It’s one of the first time I can remember in a long time where we lost the sack battle. Our defense does such a good job of creating pressure on the quarterback.
But they had a really good plan. They executed really well for that first half. We were able to make some adjustments at halftime. We have to be able to make those adjustments with a young team throughout the game between series. You can’t wait to have time to go in and that’s what it took with this young team and once we were able to come out with some adjustments made and explain to them what we were doing and how they were trying to do it, really, in all three phases, then I thought we were able to make some progress in the second half and grow.
Q. What kind of progress have you seen from the wide receiver group in the early going and how important is it for them to get off that aggressive press that Pitt will show them?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, I think that’s a big battle in this game, our wide receivers versus their defensive backs and how physical they play at the line of scrimmage.
Obviously we have got three different wide receivers that are starting for us, and Justin Shorter is 230 pounds and then you’ve got obviously KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson that aren’t 230 pounds.
So they are all going to have to win differently and then we’ve got other guys that we are going to rotate in there, as well. But that’s going to be a big battle in this game is how our guys are able to get off the press, how our guys are going to be physical in the running game, as well. That’s going to be a big challenge in this game.
But I like how our wide receivers are progressing. They are playing with a lot of confidence right now. They are bigger. They are stronger. They are more experienced and I think Jared does a great job from a fundamental and from a technique standpoint, but also culturally, he’s done a really good job just with that room, their mentality, their approach in a lot of different things.
So I’m very pleased with that group but we are going to need them to play well on Saturday. That will be a big challenge as we know, Coach Narduzzi and this defense, they do not want you to run the ball. They don’t want you to run for one yard with how they play their box, trying to get that field backer into the box folding him back in late as much as possible and those safeties are downhill, run support guys that are going to add on, and then obviously they are playing pretty much press-man at the corners.
So it’s a challenge. It’s an in-your-face style of defense. The linebackers are downhill, as soon as they get their reads, which makes it difficult to stay on double teams, your offensive linemen have to come off and climb on the linebacker quickly. That’s part of their design. That’s what they want you to do. It’s a good scheme, there’s no doubt about it, and we’re excited for the challenge.
Q. You mentioned changing signals earlier. How long did that take to do for the coaching staff and how long did it take for your players to learn that?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Well, if we would have waited till this week, it would have been problematic. I don’t think you wait until this week. It’s no different, you guys have been coming to practice. If you wait to deal with crowd noise the week of a game like this, it’s going to be a problem.
I learned that very early on in my career in my first year as a coordinator going to West Virginia, I learned that. You’ve got to learn crowd noise from the beginning of camp and allow it to build and get guys used to it and adjusted to it. And it’s the same way with the signal. To be able to think that you’re going to change your signals in a week; it’s not going to happen.
As soon as that was announced, that that’s where he was going, we had to get with our guys and come up with new signals for everything that we do, either new signals or multiple signals for everything that we do.
So you know, again, the fact that we did it right away, we’ve had plenty of time to get it done and now our guys are comfortable. And let me say one more thing. We’ve already done it the first two weeks, so that helps.
Q. Your cornerbacks, could you first maybe describe a little bit about what level Castro Fields is playing on to start the season and how valuable is it to have two guys, starters that experienced? Is there some ways that maybe they help that you we don’t even maybe see easily or evidently out there always on the field?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, we think that we’ve got two of the better corners in the country, we really do, not just the conference, but the country, and they are playing with a lot of confidence right now. They are really playing well on both the run and pass game.
And then, you know, as you guys have seen the first two games, not just at the corner position, but you know, throughout our defense, we have been rotating a lot of guys. We’ve done that on offense, as well and that was the plan going into the first two games to create depth, to gain some guys some experience so later in the year, they have played and know what it takes to be successful at this level.
So I think you’ll probably see a little bit less rotation than you did the first two games, but those two guys are leading by example in terms of their approach to practice, their approach to games, their demeanor on the sideline, reinforcing things with Terry in the meeting rooms. They have been really impressive.
I couldn’t be happier for John Reid. He’s a guy that’s really built his entire career the right way. He’s a man made guy. He’s earned everything that he’s gotten, and I’m just really happy for him. I just think this year is just going to continue to grow. He is playing at a really high level right now and is extremely confident. Can run with people. Can tackle. He’s got tremendous instincts and studies the game as good as anybody. So I’m really pleased with him.
And then obviously Castro is really coming on. We thought that would he have a chance to have a big-time year for us this year and so far it looks that way.
Q. There’s no future date for a Pitt/Penn State renewal of the rivalry at this time, and I think there are some fans worried that this could be the last game for a while, or maybe ever. Do you see the series resuming at some point and when could that be?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, you know, I could. Again, it’s hard to predict the future. I think we’ve got to be creative in the ways that we look at it.
One of the things that no one’s really discussed is they play eight conference games. We play nine. That factors in to scheduling philosophies. That has an impact on it, and I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.
I think you guys have heard me talk before at the Big Ten media days, I was asked a question, but to me, you know, I think if everybody was on a level playing field, if everybody was playing eight games or everybody was playing nine games, or even everybody was playing ten games, that would help.
You look at a lot of the teams that are playing these historical rivalry games, a lot of those schools and a lot of those conferences are playing eight games. The SEC is playing eight games. The ACC is playing eight games. That creates some challenges.
I could see us possibly maybe doing a neutral site game with them. I think that’s a possibility. You know, we could have discussions. But we’ve got to be creative about it. Again, the challenges with us that have a ninth conference game and them having eight, there’s some problems with home and home.
But we’re open. We’re open to having discussions. But it’s got to equally make sense for both parties. It’s got to make sense for Pitt. It’s got to make sense for Penn State. I think this game will be sold out, but we had 104,000 last week, so we’re talking about probably an increase of 5,000 or 6,000. So it needs to be consistent for both parties.
But we’re open to talking about all different concepts and options. Scott Sidwell is in the back and his phone is open for conversations.
Q. It used to seem to me like the conventional wisdom with the offensive line was you find your best five and you get them out there and you get them playing together. Now I’m getting the feeling, not just with Penn State but with college football generally, that you want to play maybe more offensive lineman and worry about matchups because defensive lines are running guys in and out of the game. Is that changing a little bit and is it changing the way you and Matt manage that group a little bit?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, it’s a good question. I would say it really just matters more about where is your sixth, your seventh, eighth, offensive lineman.
If you look at your sixth and seventh offensive lineman like with the combination that we have with the Des Holmes and the Rasheed Walkers, and the Will Fries of the world, and then inside, with Gonzo and Thorpe and Miranda, we look at all those guys starters, we want to play them. They have earned that and they deserve that.
But if you are in a situation where there’s a signature naive can’t drop off, then you want obviously to roll with your five as much as you possibly can.
I also think the continuity of how those five guys have to work together, is really different than almost any other position. Corners and safeties, have to work together, yeah, but you’re not talking about all four DBs having to be exactly on the same page. You know, with the offensive line, all five have to be playing as one, so it is a little bit different I think at that position. Guys may argue that, but I believe that.
So I think you’ll see us rotating those guys in because they have earned it and we think that those guys can go in and play at a high level and help us win.
So that’s -- there’s going to be years where hopefully you’ve got five that can play all year long. Some years you’re going to have seven. Some years, you may have nine or ten. Just we’ll take it on a case-by-case, and it will be personnel-driven, you know, to make those decisions.
And the other thing would I probably add, I think Caedan Wallace can factor into that, too, as the year goes on. I don’t know if he’s in the same conversation right now as those other two are, but I hope by the midpoint of the season, he is in a similar conversation as the other guys.
Q. Are you happy with how the running back rotation has looked so far, and what’s going to be the key for Ricky Slade to be more of a factor moving forward?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, we felt, like I said during camp and media days with you guys, that we have four guys that we think we can play with and win with.
Obviously in week one, you saw a lot of flashes of that. Week two, we didn’t see that as much. Again, it’s not just the running backs. It’s the O-Line. It’s the tight ends. It’s all of it. It’s all those things factoring in together.
But no, I don’t think that picture is cleared up a whole lot more than it’s been in the first couple weeks. I think you’ll see all four of those guys play on Saturday, and we’re excited about all four of their futures.
Q. Can you evaluate what you saw in the improvement from start one to start two for Sean Clifford just in terms of his confidence and being able to control all the things he needed to control?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, you know, I don’t know if it was dramatic. I just keep seeing him getting better, getting more confident, getting more relaxed. You know, getting more assertive in some areas, and I think you’re just going to see him, because the way he approaches things, him and Will Levis, are just going to continue to get better. It’s going to be gradual.
Obviously the area that jumps out to all of us, us as coaches, our quarterbacks, as well as the media, is third down. We’ve got to be better on third down on both sides, offensive and defensive. We’ve got to be better in that area.
I think a good thing is we have been one of the most explosive offenses in the country. The best offenses are getting most of their explosive plays on first and second down, but for us to take the next step, we need to continue to be explosive on first and second down and be more efficient on third down, and then we’ll be really difficult to deal with.
Q. Could you tell us where Pat Freiermuth is at this point of his career compared to maybe the middle of last year, toward the end of last year? Seemed like he played a real key factor in that game.COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, he’s a very mature kid. He’s one of those guys that has earned the respect of his teammates, but he’s really also aligned with the coaches in terms of what we want, what we expect, how we want the culture driven. He comes from a coaching family, so I think that factors into it, as well.
But he’s been really good. He’s bigger. He’s stronger. He’s leaner. He’s more athletic. He’s quicker. He’s faster. All of those types of things and he’s confident. Part of playing faster is not just that his body fat has dropped, but also because he’s confident in what to do and how to do it.
You know, I’m very pleased with him. We obviously feel like we’ve got one of the best, if not the best tight end in college football, and I think that will continue to grow, and really, that unit, that group, we think is fantastic.
And I think the thing about him is he does both things well, where you’re going to find some tight ends that may put up gaudy numbers in the pass game, but they are not the same type of player in the run game. That’s where I think he’s pretty unique and we’re pretty excited about him.
Q. What kind of an impact will a crowd you’ll have for a game like this and from a recruiting perspective?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, obviously I think ideal situation for us -- for us, for college football, for the Big Ten, for this town, is to have as many 3:30 games and 7:00 games as possible. I just think it’s good for the Big Ten. I think it’s good for college football. I know it’s good for this town. It just makes it easier for people to get here.
But we have such a passionate fan base, they will be here no matter what, but obviously it takes a different plan. Either you’re going to have to come in the night before, or you’re going to have to get up really early in the morning.
And then to your point with recruiting, you know, obviously kids come, parents come, high school coaches come; they feel the electricity and they feel the energy in the stadium. They see guys making big plays on the field and having fun and enjoying their teammates and their coaches and playing an exciting style of football.
All those things factor in and people want to be a part of that. People want to be a part of this fan base. People want to be a part of this community. All those things factor in. You know, how the young man at the hospital has been treated all week long; we take a lot of pride in those things. How our fans support and cheer and never boo, all those things factor in. They factor into how people feel about Penn State, how they feel about Happy Valley. You know, all those things.
It’s amazing, when we played USC in the Rose Bowl, and I don’t want to bring that up, because I know that game didn’t end exactly the way we would all like it to end, but you know where I got probably more e-mails than anything else since I’ve been here, is when the young man from USC got hurt on the field and all our players surrounded him and took a knee; how many e-mails I got from people all over the country that are college football fans, how many USC fans and administrators reached out about that sign of respect, you know, from our team.
This is a place that winning is important, and we get that, but this is a place that it’s so much more than winning. It’s about the academics. This is not a win-at-all-costs place. This is a place that is going to do it and do it the right way, and I think that’s what’s made this place special for over a hundred years and that’s what will continue to make this place special.
I think sometimes we probably need to be reminded of that, we’re different. You know, and we always will be from that perspective.
Q. Since you teed up the topic, talking about creative out of the box ideas and scheduling, Altoona is a neutral site game, is the only thing I can figure?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: You know everybody in Altoona is going -- do we have the venue?
Q. If it’s not Mansion Park, capacity of I think at least 10,000 with room for portable bleachers, where have you guys -- where would be a neutral site game?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: I don’t know. Obviously I’m not sure. What I’m saying is I think some of the conference scheduling challenges, you just want it to be an even exchange and the best way to do that is a neutral site. Now, how do you do that? I’m not sure where it makes sense for both parties especially when we are in the same state.
I’m talking about in terms of making it make sense for both universities and both schools. That’s an option. I’m not saying that’s the answer, but that’s one of many that we can look at and discuss.
All I’m saying is we are not closing the door. We are open to a bunch of different discussions, whether that is home and home, whether that is neutral site, whatever that may be. But it sure would make it a lot easier if we both playing eight conference games or nine conference games. That would help college football and that would help this game, too.
Q. I just wanted to get your thoughts on the challenge of defending or slowing Maurice Ffrench from Pittsburgh, not only in the receiver but in the in the return game?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, he’s a dynamic player. We recruited him. He’s a dynamic player. He’s had a great career there. I think in a lot of ways, they go the way he goes. He’s a momentum guy for them. He’s an impact guy on offense and special teams, in a lot of ways like KJ is for us.
Yeah, we have to know where he is. It’s a great challenge. We try to identify guys each week on defense. Here are a few guys that we know if we are not aware of where they are at, they can have a significant impact in the game on special teams who those players are.
Same thing on defense. Our offense is saying, who are those guys we better have a plan for, whether it’s a defensive end or a D-tackle or whether it’s a corner or whatever it is. You’d better have an awareness of who those guys are and you’d better have a plan for them and he’s one of those guys, there’s no doubt about it.
It’s not just about the scheme and scheme alone. It’s personnel and scheme, and a lot of times, it probably is or should be more about the personnel.
Q. You know, I think you’ve talked about this in the past, having family in western Pennsylvania, growing up in Eastern Pennsylvania, you know, being a kid -- when you were a kid, this rivalry was at its zenith. What does it mean to you and what are your memories from it?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, you know, again, the hard part is when I really got into college football, I mean, really got into it, watching it and studying it and things like that, when I was young, I was a go-out-and-play-all day, not really sit in and watch sports.
This game, again, you’ve got to remember, most of our players before the last four years had never even seen, you know. So for me, obviously I grew up just outside of Philadelphia, but my dad is from the Hill District. All my Thanksgivings, all my Christmases, most of my summers were spent there. My grandfather drove a Jitney. He cleaned out the historical jazz bar at night called the Crawford Grill every night, which is a famous, famous -- it’s not there any more, in the hill, like it was.
My best friend comes up to every single game, Keith Gardner. I call him, Mighty. You guys have probably seen him around. I literally didn’t know his name for probably 15 years. I thought it was Mighty.
My cousin, Karen, works at Pitt, works on Pitt’s campus. You know, so I’ve got a lot of ties there in that part of the state, and specifically in that city. You know, I remember being in the veteran’s hospital, overlooking the stadium, looking at the stadium when the stadium was on campus.
So yeah, there’s a lot of history. There’s a lot of history with these two schools. Obviously with this state, and I got tremendous respect for the University of Pittsburgh, for their program, for their history, all the great players that they have had come out of there.
I also think there’s aspects and people say, Ah, that’s college football. I also think there’s aspects of this game that bring out the worst of both fan bases and populations, and I know some people may say that’s good. I don’t know if that’s good. I think we can have a great game without all that other stuff.
So you know, we’re looking forward to playing the game on Saturday, but there’s no doubt about it, I got friends and family that are going to be going back there. But I’ve also got friends and family, I’ll admit, that this game, they support Penn State, but the rest of the year they are going to support Pitt, which you know, I’m perfectly fine with people supporting their hometown team.
You know, Jemal Griffin who used to work here, I make fun of him all the time because he literally every sport, he’s got a different team never part of the country. He’s from Baltimore; his football team was the Cowboys. Had never been to Dallas in his life but that was his team.
I would make fun of his team and say Lakers was his basketball, but it wasn’t. But I think you support your in-state team.
Q. Just because the Cowboys are on at four o’clock. Can’t get away from it.COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: You a Cowboys fan?
Q. No. No. Lord, no. No. No.COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: I didn’t know if you were endorsing that.
Q. No. I’m a Buffalo guy.COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Interesting.
Q. Yeah, I know. Everyone feels bad now.COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: That’s Kris. That’s Kris. (Laughter) we have strong ties to Buffalo with the Pegulas.
Q. You mentioned how explosive you’ve been, especially on first and second down. How much do you balance want to go take shots and being explosive versus staying on schedule? Just the philosophy of how many shots you want to take in a game, and how does Ricky’s personality as a play caller kind of factor into all of that?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: I think that’s a really good question, because I will tell you, that’s probably how most coaches were raised in the industry is about staying on schedule. Unless you come from certain family trees, most, most people are about staying on schedule, creating manageable third-down situations: What are you trying to do on first down; you’re trying to get four. What are you trying to get on second down; you’re trying to get half so I can create manageable third down situations. What am I trying to do on third down; obviously convert; fourth down, convert. Ultimately score touchdowns, be efficient in the red zone, all those types of things.
But I think as people have really got into analytics and studying what is the most impactful thing to winning football games, there are two stats that are dramatically ahead of everything else and that’s creating explosive plays on offense. It’s eliminating explosive plays on defense, and it’s the turnover battle. Those two things.
In the old days, what was the other one that everybody talked about? Time of possession. Well, that has shown to not really be as big of a factor when this comes specifically to the greatest impact on winning.
So I think it’s changed. People were raised on staying on schedule, but the reality is, you’d better be aggressive and you’d better push the ball down the field. There’s a fine line to those stats, because I think some of those analytics people tell you, you should go for every single fourth and one, whether you’re on the minus one or the plus one.
So you know, there’s -- I think like I’ve told you guys before, it is a valuable piece of information, but that’s what it is. It’s a piece of information. It’s not the end-all, be-all.
Q. To have someone like Pickett who has a more extensive track record, what does that allow your defense to do in preparation?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: I think last week was a really interesting one because literally, we all saw what, in my opinion, we all saw a high-level quarterback for Buffalo that I think is going to win them a bunch of games. Was really good in the run game. Was really good in the pass game. Is big, strong, good decision-maker.
They obviously went into game one saying they weren’t going to show that, and only threw the ball ten times in that game. So there was a lot of question marks in mystery of what we were going to get in game two.
Did they not throw the ball because they didn’t feel like he was ready, or were they holding something back and saving. I think we found out that they were saving.
Obviously with Pickett, we’ve got a lot more film to watch and be aware of and to study, not just from this season but from last season, as well. So yeah, that’s helpful. Obviously the more information you have in any decision-making process in any industry, the better decisions you can make.
So for us on special teams, we typically go back five years studying guys. On offense and defense, it’s usually about four games to get as much information as we can, and then we’ll go even further if we need to for similar opponents.
On special teams, usually go deeper because you have so many less reps, so many less reps. You know, obviously I think there’s value in that. We’ve got a better idea of what he is.
Q. You mentioned making halftime at adjustments with a younger team which is very reminiscent to the 2016 team, similar story line early. Later in the year, because they were a second half team for the most part what is the biggest challenge in getting a team to make adjustments in the first half and did you learn anything from that season where that was the ongoing thing?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: I think the biggest thing is getting guys, young guys that are on the sideline, that are emotional, that there’s offense going on, there’s JumboTrons going on, the fans are going crazy and you’re on the sideline with a grease board talking about what they are doing and where I probably need to do a better job of articulating this: It’s not just the coaches.
It’s not just the coaches making adjustments to the players. The first thing is getting feedback from the players. And what’s amazing is as players get older, the more accurate information you get -- right now with Michal Menet, when he comes to the sideline, he can tell us exactly what’s happening and it aligns with exactly what they are telling us if the booth, because sometimes what we are hearing in the booth isn’t exactly happening.
So when you’re able to connect those two things -- making the adjustments is getting the informs from the player and also being able to make the adjustments based on what’s being told in the booth and being able to digest that information and translate it on to the field when the JumboTrons are going and the noise is going and the play is going, and there’s noise and fans and stuff everywhere. And as you know, in some ways, it may be better to make the adjustments, have all of them bring their cell phones and do it that way because they are not use the to eye-to-eye contact and conversations.
I just think that comes with time. It comes with time to get really valuable, accurate information from them about what’s happening and then also for us to be able to take the information from them and what we’re being told in the booth and then make the adjustments, because the other information is how they playing how we thought they were playing. On first and second down, this is what we expect them to be; third down, this is what we expect them to be; red zone, this is what we expect them to be.
Now, early in the game, are they playing to what our studies have showed us, or do they have a game plan that they have been working on all summer, specifically for this game, and they are going to show us things that we have not seen before. And you need to find that information out as soon as you possibly can.
That’s why a lot of people script the opening drive of a game. Well, why do you do that? Because you think these are your best plays in the game, but it’s also, you want to line up in empty once to find out as soon as possible, are they lining up to empty how we thought, and into the FIB-formation into the boundary how we thought. If you can show all these the 10-personnel, 11-personnel, whatever it may be, now you can find out quickly, are they playing how we thought they would play. If you don’t line up in empty until the fourth quarter, you don’t know if they are following the empty playing that we have.
So a lot of times when people script, they are scripting out all those situations to find out as soon as you can, are they playing how they we thought they were going to play in all these different situations. Does that make sense?
And all that information, you’re trying to get so we can make great decisions, but you’re also trying to get the information from the players and then give them valuable information back that they can digest and put to work as quickly as possible on the field.
Q. You’ve been in the coaching profession for a long time now. Have you ever been in a situation where you had a veteran player transfer to a future opponent like this, and do you think can that have a big impact on the game?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Obviously the profession has changed. The graduate transfer rule changed a few years ago. This year, what happened with everybody across the country with the new rules and the transfer portal and those things, it changed things.
This is exactly why for years, coaches were against, you know, the transferring within conferences or games on your schedule. I think the problem with it is that as we all know, some people abused it, and they were denying kids everywhere that they wanted to go and that shouldn’t happen.
But what happened is we overcorrected. We went from not being able to -- we went from being able to deny them everywhere to now not being able to deny them anywhere. So it’s problematic. That’s why people have no-competes and things like that.
It is what it is, and if that’s in the best interest of the student athlete, we’ll adjust. We’ll adjust, which is what we’ve done. We’ll adjust. As soon as it happened, it was we need to adjust, we need to adjust right now.
Q. You mentioned how many of your players had not grown up with the Penn State/Pitt match-up. What have you seen over the last three years as far as the crowds? What’s your take on how it has been reignited?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Where are you from?
Q. PA.COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: How old are you?
Q. 21.COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Have you ever seen a Pitt/Penn State game?
Q. No.COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Never. And that’s kind of the same with our entire locker room.
But the games have been awesome. I mean, the games have been awesome. That first game was an unbelievable game. The environment, I think we had the largest crowd in Heinz Field history for any sporting event, isn’t that correct? I mean, that’s pretty cool. You know, that’s pretty cool. We’ve had environments and crowds here that we have probably two or three times a year, but good, really good.
Been very competitive. You know, again, there’s some things like I mentioned before, that I don’t know if it necessarily brings out the best in both fan bases and both teams and both staffs at times, including ours and myself.
But there’s no doubt about it; I get it and I understand the significance of it. A lot of it is just bragging rights. People going back to work on Monday. You know, people going back like I mentioned, you know, going back to Pittsburgh, going back to see family and friends. It’s all those types of things that just hits a little bit closer to home, is probably a great expression.
Q. We’re looking at the accumulation of reps for this defense and you had that three-game stretch last year with 88-plus snaps. Is there anything you can take away from that? I know you rotated a lot on Saturday, but them getting up there in the 90s, is that worrisome?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Yeah, obviously you want as least amount of plays as possible, but that’s also where the rotation helps.
We had a bunch of guys in game one play 17 or 20 plays and you get to week two and the numbers spiked. But that was a combination of both. That was a combination of our defense has got to get off the field; a combination of our offense has got to stay on the field, all those things and you can’t have a turnover on special teams, as well. That doesn’t help, as well.
So it’s all of those things. But yeah, we want the number on offense and defense to be as low as possible. I don’t know if that’s necessarily possible. One is going to have to have a little bit more in the game.
We prefer it to be our offense than our defense, but that’s where the rotation is so important because even if the game where we played 90 plays on defense, we still were able to do a pretty good job with our rotation to help with some of those things and we’ve made some adjustments this week, too. We’ve moved some guys around -- I know the next question is, who do we move around.
Q. Last two years, you’ve had pretty good wins in this years. Has that helped you recruiting in Pittsburgh? And how big is this game recruiting-wise, compared to the rest of your home schedule? I assume Michigan is pretty big. Is this No. 2?COACH JAMES FRANKLIN: Again, that’s a conversation that I hear and see a lot, and a lot of people ask me -- I just got asked in an interview before coming here and got that same question, and you probably can speak on this, as well.
Obviously winning helps. The environment helps. But I don’t think one game swings you. I don’t think kids are choosing Penn State because of one game. I don’t think kids are choosing another school because of one game.
Do guys want to be a part of winning programs? Yes. Do guys want to play in front of 107,000? Yes. Do guys want to go to a school where they can get a great education and their paints -- that’s important to their parents, yes, all those things factor in. But I don’t think one game really trumps that. I mean, you look that year in 2016, I think we lost and we had a pretty good season. We had pretty good recruiting classes that year and the year after that.
So you know, I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s as significant as people may think. Do we want to win the game? Yeah. Do we think it helps? Yeah. But I don’t think it’s the end all, be all.
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