The curtains parted from the press conference stage, revealing a weathered, rustic cabin interior, with our own Head Bald Coach James Franklin laying prone, strapped securely to a thin twin bed. Helpless, Coach’s eyes communicated panic as they focused not on the web-assembled media, but on a gigantic papier mache mask in the form of the dreaded corona. It lacked eyes, mouth, or any facial components - it’s the ‘rona virus, after all - yet it presented an incredibly menacing posture, sadistically taunting Coach.
And Then The Presser Started
Opening Statement: Obviously want to start by giving Nebraska credit. I think the story of the game was turnovers in the first half. That’s been a similar challenge that we have had this year, turnovers early in games. You think about one interception that’s returned, I think down to the 15-yard line, as well as the fumble recovery for a touchdown two weeks in a row. So that’s been the thing that more than anything in my mind that we have got to get cleaned up. We got to get that resolved, not only on offense and protecting the football, but on defense in terms of creating turnovers. I was watching last night the early in the year, it was the Northwestern and Iowa game, and I think in that game, I think Northwestern had three turnovers and Iowa had four. So I think that’s the biggest story. I thought we battled like crazy in the second half. We won the second half, 17-3. The defense gave up three points and 95 yards total, in the second half. Our field goal execution was good, but obviously we need to score more touchdowns and not field goals. We got to punt the ball better. That’s something from a field positioning standpoint that we haven’t been able to do consistently this year and that’s going to be important, especially against the Iowa football team that’s really good in the return units. And then the last thing on Nebraska is obviously Will Levis came in and did some good things and gave us a spark. When you get into Iowa, we’ve been fortunate to have some great games, since I got here. Six games against this program, and they’ve been great games that we’ve been fortunate to find all different types of ways to get wins. Obviously, Kirk Ferentz is the vet in the Big Ten. He’s been the head coach at Iowa for 22 years. Obviously, they do a great job. They play hard. They play sound. They play fundamental football. Typically they build from their front seven on defense and their offensive line and tight ends on offense. But on that same note, since 2017, I think they’ve led the country in interceptions. So that will be a challenge for us. But I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Ferentz and the Iowa football program. Like I said, in the beginning, we’ve been fortunate to have a pretty good amount of success over the last six years, which was probably somewhat different than how it was the few years before we got here. Obviously, we got to do everything we possibly can to find a way to get a win on Saturday, which would be really important for our program, be really important for our players and coaches, and our fans and community. There’ll be a tremendous challenge, but looking forward to that opportunity. Q: Have you settled on a starting quarterback? If so, can you tell us who it is and how you came to the decision? And if not, can you take us through the timetable of how you’ll figure that out this week?A: Obviously, I knew that that question was coming in and I get it. Yeah, we have not. We have not made that decision or announced that decision yet. Obviously we had some conversations about it about it this weekend with not only the coaching staff but also with Sean (Clifford) and with Will (Levis), as well, based on what we’re going to do in practice. We’ll evaluate that as the week goes on based on what we do this week but also what we’ve done this season and what we’ve done last year. Obviously, Will came in and did some good things and put himself in this position, and he’s earned it. No different than Sean had earned the ability to be our starting quarterback last year, our starting quarterback to start the season. Will was able to come in and earn to be part of this conversation. But no, it’s not like we have decided or made any announcements yet. As you guys know, and I know it drives you crazy sometimes, we typically aren’t going to make any announcements publicly unless it’s obvious for some type of season-ending injury and things like that. Some people don’t even do depth charts now. Teams we play don’t even do depth charts at all. We try to give you guys a little bit of information. But not everything all at once. Q: What do you think that your defense has to do better, especially in the first half of games?A: I think it’s a couple things. We have typically, really over six years, haven’t always been great on the opening drives. That’s been a fairly consistent theme, and things that we have talked about, myself and Coach (Brent) Pry and the defensive staff, obviously, you’re going to get a scripted set of plays and formations to kind of find out what you’re going to be in and are you playing how they expect. But that’s something we’ve discussed, not just for this year, but for a number of years. But typically, you know, we’ve been able to settle down. I think one of the challenges is obviously we got to tackle better, and we got to be able to adjust faster. But the other thing is a lot of the turnovers have happened in the first half, when you have two turnovers for touchdowns, and then you have turnovers for big returns. When one goes for a touchdown and one drive starts at the 15-yard line, that’s challenging as well. So we got to find a way to play better in opening drives, we got to protect the ball on offense, and we got to play our brand that we’ve been playing on defense in the second halves earlier in games. But I think more than anything, it’s tackling, and it’s being able to adjust to all the different looks that we’re getting early in games, and being able to understand there’s going to be some things that show up in games, that it’s the first time that you’re seeing it. And you have to trust your training and fall into your empty rules or fall into your unbalanced rules, or whatever they are for that week, because you just can’t cover everything in a week. Especially, in opening drives. Q: When we first spoke to you after the season opening game against Indiana, when Noah Cain went down, you mentioned that Devyn Ford would have to grow into being that guy, and there was a big difference between obviously being a complementary piece and the lead dog. Through these last three-plus weeks since then, have you seen Devyn kind of take on that responsibility?A: I thought last week, Devyn and the two young backs Keyvone (Lee) and Caziah (Holmes) really did some good things. Obviously, Devyn is carrying most of the load, and those other guys are able to give him a blow and are doing some nice things as well. But yeah, I see Devin growing. I thought we ran the ball last week as good as we’ve run it this year. And that’s a combination of the offensive line and tight ends, as well as the running backs. I know Coach (Ja’Juan) Seider, when we review our notes on Sunday after we’ve all watched it multiple times, I know he was pleased with the running backs, not just how they ran the ball, but also how they protected. I thought they did a good job in pass protection, as well. So that group is coming along, and we need to continue to come along. This is going to be a week- it’s always challenging to run the ball against Iowa. You know, they’re big and they’re physical in the front seven, and you gotta be able to break tackles. Again, you watch that Northwestern game and, it wasn’t always pretty, but it was 3, 4 yards, 1 yard, 3 yards, you know, 16 play drives. When you watch it, maybe it didn’t feel like they were being overly successful. I think in that game, I think they may have only thrown in five times in the first half. But that’s kind of how you have to be against Iowa. They’re going to make you earn it and we’re going to have to be ready for physical football. Q: After getting a chance to watch Will Levis in that game, what are some of the things you think he did well? What are some areas you’d like to see him grow and develop?A: I think Will’s got a really strong arm and can drive the ball and make defenses defend the entire 53 and a third of the field, which is helpful. His arm strength is also I think gonna help with yards after the catch. That showed up on Saturday and, how this plays out, could moving forward. I think one of the areas that he would admit that he needs to get a little bit better on his some of his touch, when to take a little bit of the octane off the pass, and put it in a position where our guy has a chance to go up and make the play. That’s kind of all of the little subtle things of playing the quarterback position. Everybody loves the big strong arm, which he has, but it’s also you knowing when to take a little something off and throw for touch. And then I think the other thing that we did well on Saturday, obviously he’s a big physical runner. We saw it last year against Ohio State. Not only is he able to make people miss, but he tends to fall forward on runs. And you know, a couple of the runs, even on short yardage where he got hit, even sometimes in the backfield, he was able to carry a guy for a yard to get the first down and to keep the drive alive. So, he played hard and he played with passion, and did some good things. We just got to make a few more throws and again, continue to continue to improve in some of the path touch aspects of the game. Q: Curious what the film told you about the way your line performed once Caden Wallace came in and Will Fries kicked into guard, and if you saw enough from that to make that your starting group moving forward?A: Again, as you know, I won’t announce starters at this time. We thought Caden did some good things. Obviously, that’s why we got him in there for that many reps because he just continues to gain confidence. He’s big and strong and powerful and light on his feet. I also think having Will Fries at guard also helps Caeden, because he’s got an older, experienced guy right next to him that has played a lot of football for us. So that’s been helpful. That combination has also been able to rotate some other guys in there: Juice Scruggs, CJ Thorpe and Mike Miranda. I think that’s been a positive for us, so I can see that continue to grow, as long as he continues to develop the way we think he will. Q: We spoke about the grind of playing nine games consecutively, not having that bye week. One of the benefits you mentioned was being able to rotate some guys in without having to burn a redshirt this season. Four games into the season, how has that benefited you so far and how have you been able to use that to your advantage?A: Typically, early in the season out of conference games and things like that you can gain experience, or you’re playing well, and you’re able to get up by a few points and able to get some guys in the game that you want to be able to get reps. But all the games have been such battles that it’s hard to take your starters off field and rotate some guys in. We’ve done that at some positions, and we’ve done that in some places out of necessity, whether a guy hasn’t been available because of injuries or whatever it may be. But yeah, it’s been a grind, you know, there’s no doubt about it. This 2020, I see things every day, and every week, all across the NFL, all across college football. I’m looking at the records in the Big Ten, I’m looking at the top-25 rankings, and I don’t think I’ve seen a year like this in the Big Ten since I’ve been her, obviously specific to Penn State specifically. Q: The defense only allowed six points once Will Levis entered the game and then afterwards, a couple of guys kind of talked about the spark he provided for them on that side of the ball. I’m wondering, do you think that’s a coincidence? Is that something that could be continued if he’s the starter? Is there something about the way he plays that might promote the defense, kind of having that aggressive style moving forward in the games?A: Yeah, I think that the reality is, you’d love for the defense and the offense and special teams to go do their jobs, no matter what the circumstances may be, but the reality is, when the defense makes a play, and it has an effect on the offense. When the offense makes a play, it has an effect on the defense, and special teams is the same way. So yeah, I don’t know if it’s necessarily something specific about Will, but he came in and did some nice things. Obviously, that has an impact on our entire team, anybody you know. We’ve been able to do that over six years, is make big plays, and make big plays to swing momentum. Even sometimes when people make a big play against us, we’ve been able to counter with a big plays as well to swing momentum and emotion on the sideline and in the stadium. So, you know, Will did some good things on Saturday and gave us a chance to go win the game. Our defensive was able to get a late turnover as well. I think your point is a good one. I do understand that when the defense plays well, it definitely has an impact on the offense and vice versa. And obviously Will was part of that, that second half on Saturday, and we’ll see how this plays out this week and then we can build on it. Q: This is uncharted territory for a lot of people in your program. Who do you lean on? Who coaches you during these kinds of struggles?A: I actually almost called you this this afternoon. Obviously, with my family not being here, that’s a good question. I have people that I call and people that reach out to me. A bunch of people have reached out to me, which is nice. But, you know, I’m trying to be there for the players, I’m trying to be there for the coaching staff and help us navigate through these times that none of us have been before, ever. That’s not just specific to football, that also is family issues, that’s COVID issues. That is academic issues. That’s normal growing pains of 18-to-22-year-old young men. It’s all of it and that’s my job, my responsibility as the head coach is to support everybody and give direction and a path and get people excited and motivated in a time when that’s challenging to do. I also try to remind myself every single day how blessed I am and how fortunate I am. I think about what Journey Brown has gone through this year. I think about the fact that I’ve got two healthy daughters and my wife and my staff, all those types of things. We’re being tested right now and we’re being challenged and we plan to answer the test and grow from this. It doesn’t always feel like it at the time, but I believe good will come from this for my program, our players and myself. I’m going to use this opportunity to get better. Q: There’s been a lot of analysis about the mental and emotional makeup of this team. What do you think about the personality of this team? Is there anything about this group that sets them apart?A: Well, I think the thing that’s hard to do right now is this separate at all. I think you’ve got to look at all of the circumstances, you’ve got to look at our team, you’ve got to look at our coaching staff. You’ve got to look at what the offseason was like. You’ve got to look at the internal challenges we’ve had, the external ones we’ve had. You’ve got to look at things specific to Pennsylvania and Penn State, you have to look at all of it. It all factors in. All the positive things have and impact and all the negative things have an impact, but the reality is, it is what it is. I know people turn on their TVs on Saturday afternoon and they want to be able to have an escape away from their lives and enjoy Nittany Lion football and Penn State football and we have a responsibility to go out there and play well. But yeah, when you’ve got 18-to-22-year- old men, you got 100 of them and the staff, all the things and all the challenges that I see in the NFL and across college football right now, I think of all the stuff with COVID, all of the changes in our program and all the things that we’re doing. One of the issues we continue to have issues with is false positives. You know, we’ve had 39 false positives where that means 39 people missing practice. We’re at, I think, a higher rate than anyone in the conference and we’re trying to find out why. Because every time we have one of those, guys miss practice. I will say, again, there’s a silver-lining in everything and the positive is, knock on wood, those are not positive COVID tests, which is something we’ve worked really hard to keep everyone as safe and healthy as we possibly can. I guess what I’m say is , it’s just hard right now to do that, because there’s just been so many things going on. I will say from what I’ve seen, this team cares deeply about one another. This team battles for four quarters. We showed that last week and gave ourselves a chance to win at the end, but everybody’s trying to navigate this and there’s not too many of us that have been through this before, specifically at this level. Q: What did you feel were the biggest problems in the red zone on Saturday? What do you have to do to rectify those problems? Was Will [Levis] prepared enough to handle those responsibilities?A: I think a couple things. I think when you get into the red zone, everything is magnified. The details are all magnified, because the windows shrink and there’s less space for the defense to cover. They don’t have to defend any vertical routes. It’s all horizontal and high-lows. All the details get magnified down there and precision, you know, is critical. I also think that’s where having the touch comes in and rather than driving the ball across the field, it’s dropping the ball into certain zones in certain areas and things like that. There’s no doubt that that we have to improve there. You know, the days of field goals in college football, don’t get me wrong, they’re important, but you’ve got to be able to score points and you’ve got to be able to score touchdowns, if you want to win at a high level. Early on in the season, I thought it was, you know, we weren’t running the ball effectively enough. I thought we ran the ball better on Saturday, but you’ve got to be able to do both. You’ve got to be able to run the ball and you’ve got to be able to threaten people and stretch people and challenge people in red zone combinations and then be able to drive the ball or drop the ball into tight windows. Q: How does it affect the players when they get a false positive and they might think they have it?A: Yeah, you know, we’ve had a few kids, as well as staff members, that have got false positives multiple days in a row. So it’s test positive, get put into isolation, retest, the test comes back negative later in the day, typically about halfway through practice, because the way we’re set up here in State College, our retesting is about an hour and 45 minutes away. So we have to drive it an hour and 45 minutes to get the test, wait for the test results and bring them back. Obviously, depending on where your school is located, the town, the city and things like that, everybody’s got different circumstances and challenges to deal with. But yeah, it can be an emotional roller coaster. Throughout the week, you’ve got staff members that are going through it and then other guys, GAs or analysts, have to jump into that role for practice that day. I do know, talking to one of our coaches, another school that he used to work at, I think was down six coaches one day in a practice. Again, this is what 2020 has brought us and we’ve got to find a way to navigate it the best we can. It’s not a level playing field across college football. Some places are better, some places are worse, some places have more resources and some places have more challenges. It really depends. At the end of the day, you’ve got to navigate it the best you can and you’ve got to find a way to be successful and that’s what we’re battling every single day. Q: How do you evaluate your defense’s ability to diagnose what they see post-snap? How do you coach aggressiveness without falling for offensive deception?A: I think the first thing is good one. You know, we have some veteran players that have played a lot of football and we’ve got some guys that have not played a whole lot of football and are in starting roles for the first time and, obviously, they are seeing things for the first time. Obviously, you typically don’t process it as fast as someone who’s seen it before. Even four games in, we’re still working through some of that. So that’s part of it. That’s the fine line. That’s where, you know, the details of the film study, where the details of the coaching matter, in terms of the angles you take. Then I also think, understanding situational football, you know, where those double moves are going to show up? Where are those deceptive-type plays going to show up? Part of it is in instincts of a player, being able to tell the subtle differences between a hitch route and a double move or an out and an out-and-up, because there are subtle differences. Those come with experience. It’s all of it. It’s the film study, the details, the instincts, situational football. It’s all of it. It’s also knowing your opponent, knowing the play caller. As a defensive coordinator, some of the things you can call in those situations to reduce some of that risk based on when this coordinator typically likes to take shots. It’s all those things. Q: How do you balance developing into the team you want to be and embracing the team you might have to be this year?A: I think at the end of the day, you have do to what you have to do to give your team the best chance to win. Whatever that may look like. That’s based on your personnel. That’s based on the experience of your staff and their backgrounds, the things they do well and the players do well and playing a style of football that’s going to give you the best chance to do that without becoming too conservative and without becoming too predictable. That’s the fine line. I think that’s some of what you have seen in the second halves of changing our style of play to solve some of the issues that we’ve had in the first half. I think to your point, we have to go into some of these games with a similar mentality to give us the best chance to be successful. Q: What are the steps you take in keeping your team positive or upbeat? Do you spend any extra time to show them the things you did well on film?A: Yeah, I think you do. I think you have to you have to balance that, always. The reality is actually after wins, a lot of times you can be harder on guys. You know, we’ve talked about that for six years, that even when you win, there’s still things that need to get corrected and cleaned up to allow you to continue to win. After losses, you’ve got to make the corrections, but you’ve got to do it in a way that, that young man can hear it and grow and not be defensive. That’s all of us. I think that’s really important. I’d say it’s more challenging than it’s ever been. Social media plays a part in it. It’s really hard as the head coach to insulate the players from a lot of noise out there. I think the other thing that’s, maybe, challenging is our playoff system. There’s a mentality and a sense, you’re in the playoffs and playing for a national championship, or you’re not. That’s changed college football. Again, it is what it is in 2020, all these challenges, all these issues, all these changes. You’ve got to embrace it. You’ve got to evolve. That’s us as coaches and as players. That’s the administration. That’s everybody. We all have to evolve with it because college football has probably changed more in the last 10 years than probably any other point in our history. Q: When you look at Iowa, what does it say that they’ve stayed true to what they’ve done throughout time, running the ball and playing great defense? Can you break down their defense?A: I think, in essence, you are correct. They still have a fullback, they still try to run the ball and be physical and they’re built up front. But they also have a lot of spread concepts now as well. So, it’s not the same Iowa. You know, really since I’ve been in this conference, it’s not the same Iowa that it was 20-30 years ago. Do they still have a fullback? Yes. Do they still try to set everything up through the run and play a physical style of football? Yes. All those things are accurate. But they’re running a lot more spread concepts. They’re operating from the gun a lot more, so they’ve evolved. Defensively, they’ve done a really good job. They’ve had such consistency on their staff, starting with the head coach all the way down. Same thing with the defensive coordinator. They do a great job of making you earn everything. They play a lot of zone coverages and have a lot of eyes on the quarterback, which I think has been a big part of their ability to lead the country in interceptions, I think since 2017. I would say that they are based out of a quarters’ philosophy. Whether it’s quarters, quarters-half on the back end. They’re always one of the bigger fronts that we play. They’re usually over 300 pounds, typically, at the tackles and have length, usually six-foot-four or taller. Same thing at defensive end. They’re usually 270, usually on the bigger side of the defensive ends that we face, and they usually have tremendous length. They’re still long, not as long as they’ve been in the past, like six-foot-six or six-foot-seven guys. They’re stout and physical at the linebacker position and they blitz enough to keep you honest and create situations where your five individual blocks all have to win or you’re gonna give up pressures to the quarterbacks. I think that’s the biggest thing. They make you earn it and they’ve created turnovers. I think they can spend a lot of their time, because they don’t change a whole lot on defense. I would say that, where they’ve kept their mentality almost completely intact is on the defensive side of the ball. What they’re able to do is, this is who we are and this is what we play. And now we spend all our time on learning what our opponent does and how they’re going to try to attack us and then make subtle tweaks that we have to emphasize so we can stop them. Q: How fragile are college football teams?A: You have a group of programs that are battling like crazy to take that next step. That’s probably more challenging than it’s ever been. I think the focus and the emphasis, you know, you look at what we’ve been able to do the previous four years but you couple that with expectations and the standings. But college football’s changed dramatically. Expectations have changed, resources have changed, facilities have changed. To your point, this year I think probably magnifies it for probably reasons outside of what you’re discussing. I think a lot of it is just based on who the school is, where they’re at, what their history and traditions are and how they view where they want to be, specifically when you talk about the college football playoffs and how that all plays out. It’s a really interesting dynamic that we’ve created. It’s made college football really exciting in the playoffs and I think that’s why there’s been a lot of discussions about expanding it. But it’s also having a major impact on the bowls. It’s had a major impact on the regular season. Q: In a normal season, what would the development trajectory have been on the offensive line under Phil [Trautwein]? How did that change?A: I think your point is a good one. This would’ve been the year to have no coaching turnover. If you were fortunate to be one of those programs with little-to-no turnover, that is helpful. The other thing is, did you have spring ball or not? That factors in. It’s really interesting looking across college football, you know, who had spring ball, not only nationally but in our conference. I think that’s interesting. The other point is, how did the season play out? Was it postponed and you kept practicing? Was it canceled and then restarted and the emotional roller coaster that went on with that? Did you decide to keep your players during that or did you send them home? I remember being on a Big Ten call with a bunch of coaches and said, ‘if I knew we were coming back, I wouldn’t have sent my guys home’ and they were all decisions that we had to work through. I think when you have an offensive line coach, the techniques and fundamentals are important, at every position, but probably even more so at that position. And you really have a different offensive philosophy, or a tweaked offensive philosophy, and a different tweak and offensive line philosophy. You want to have as much time with those guys as you possibly can. But, once again, it’s always a fine line. I want to answer your questions, but don’t want to feel it’s coming off as an excuse. At the end of the day, it is what it is, and we have to make the most of it. But yeah, there’s no doubt you would have liked Coach Trautwein to get his hands on those guys all spring and then in a traditional training camp, that would have been very valuable. The other thing I would say is, even when we did get our guys early on, we weren’t allowed to be in pads and you can only do so much at certain positions without pads and O-Line is specifically one of those positions. Q: Tariq Castro-Fields was on the field for warmups in full uniform and we didn’t see him on the field. Any light you can shed on his status and why he wasn’t available on Saturday?A: Yeah, we was medically unavailable last week. As you guys know, I don’t get into specifics, but I also don’t want you guys to think Tariq was suspended for any reason or things like that. We were hoping to get a Saturday game-time decision that we may have him available and it got close, but we weren’t able to have him.