Weekly Press Conference: PSU Football Head Coach James Franklin (Pittsburgh)

James Franklin, head coach of Penn State University Football, speaks during an NCAA college football press conference. The Nittany Lions face off against rival Pittsburgh on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of Penn State Football)

JAMES FRANKLIN: First of all, appreciate everybody coming out to cover us. Had a good Sunday of corrections, good Monday day-off, had a bunch of guys coming in on their own, watching the film, which was great. And not only obviously from App State, but also to get a head start on Pitt. So feel really good about that.

You have to give App State credit. I think they had a really good plan against us. They played really hard. I thought their quarterback played extremely well; ran and threw the ball really well. And I think there’s going to be a lot of value that comes out of it.

The adversity that we had to overcome, I think everybody realizes we have a lot of confidence when the ball is in Trace McSorley’s hands at the end of the game. He’s just done it so many times. We were talking to the team the other day, think about how many games we’ve been able to win — win or tie with two-minute drives, all the way back to, I think, our first game in Ireland. So that’s something we take a lot of pride in teaching situational football. I think you guys that come out to practice know, we don’t just do random two-minute situations. We use actual two-minute situations that our guys have been through, so it’s more realistic. They can remember and feel the emotion of what that experience was and what we learned from and where we can grow. So a lot of confidence there.

But we played like an inexperienced football team. We had a bunch of guys playing for the first time, guys that did not play as fast or as confident as I know they’re capable of. And then mistakes, not playing the techniques or the fundamentals the way we want them played, or not even the right assignments. So obviously we gotta make big improvements between week one and week two. A lot of people feel that’s when you make the biggest improvements, so we’re going to need it, and I think our guys have the right mentality, and I think our coaching staff took the right approach on Sunday and Monday.

Overall I think probably the thing that allowed us to be successful on Saturday was that we won the turnover battle. If you look, the percentages at Penn State at home and in general, you’re in the 90 percents. You win the turnover battle, you got a chance to be successful. We won the penalty battle. I thought App State did a really good job of handling the noise. I don’t think there was a whole lot of jumping offsides and things like that, but we won that battle.

I think the adjustments that we made with the new blocking rules helped us. But I think that was a major factor in the game. And then the sack battle, which there wasn’t a lot of sacks for either side, but we won that as well. So positives there.

Players of the week, on offense was [running back] Miles Sanders. On defense was [defensive end] Shareef Miller, and on special teams was [kicker] Jake Pinegar.

So the positives, big-time gritty win against a really good opponent, a two-minute drive to win the game. Doesn’t feel like this, but the defense had given up three points and 175 yards going into the fourth quarter. Didn’t feel like that, but that’s the reality of it. Bunch of first-time starters gained a lot of experience that we’ll grow from, tremendous opportunity for growth game one to game two, and then I thought the PAT/field goals we were 7 of 7 with a guy doing it for the first time.

The major areas for growth, examples of making sure that our guys are playing full speed from the snap to the whistle, discipline up front and defense in keying the ball, not jumping offsides. They were our two penalties, jumping offsides, one in a critical situation.

Offensively, we have to be better in our perimeter blocking, and defensively, we gotta be better in our block destruction, especially on the perimeter with D backs and wide receivers. And then we gotta do a great job – we coach it all the time in practice, but it showed up a few times – whenever the ball is on the ground, we don’t know how they’re going to rule it; are they going to rule it an incomplete pass, are they going to rule it a fumble, are they going to rule it a backwards pass? Whenever the ball is on the ground in practice, we’re all over our guys about covering, and we didn’t do that consistently on Saturday.

So just some things like that we have to get cleared up, but I feel good about it.

And then obviously, getting into Pitt, tremendous challenge. Got so much respect for the University of Pittsburgh and their program and Coach Narduzzi and what he’s been able to do throughout his career. It’s going to be a tough place to play. I think we’ll get really good support. I think our fans will show up strong as well. But it’s a tough place to play, there’s no doubt about it. So we have to be ready for that.

We’ll have their fight song. We’ll have all their stadium music blaring all week long to get prepared for that and make it as loud and hostile as we possibly can. And then we gotta go out and we gotta make a huge improvement from game one to game two. So should be a tremendous challenge.

Obviously Coach Narduzzi does a great job. He obviously has a defensive background. Offensively, Shawn Watson has done a really good job, he’s had a great career, been a head coach, been a coordinator, has been doing this for a long time, 32 years.

The offensive guys, Qadree Ollison returning, George Aston, who gave us fits two years earlier. Jimmy Morrissey and Alex Bookser are all guys that we have a lot of respect for, and it’s going to be a challenge to stop their pro-style, multiple-shift motion offense, speed sweeps, fake speed sweeps, inside zone. I think although Coach Watson is in his second year, he was part of the program the year before in a consultant role. So he knows what they do and what they do well.

And then defensively, Randy Bates is now there, so combining his experience with Coach Narduzzi’s, they got a bunch of starters back on defense, nine returning starters on defense. I won’t list all those guys out. As you guys know, they are 4-3 quarters, press, very similar to what Michigan State does. It’s evolved over time a little bit obviously, once he’s left Michigan State, and they’ve been disruptive.

Dewayne Hendrix is a guy that we’ve got a lot of respect for as a defensive end. Quintin Wirginis, if I’m saying that correctly, their linebacker, wasn’t able to play last year, who I’ve heard great things about, has played in 38 career games up to that point and got a knack for getting to the quarterback. And then we expect Dane Jackson to be back this game, their starting corner, No. 11.

So should be interesting. And then I think Andre Powell and their special teams is always really good. They’ve given us some fits in the past, so we’re going to have to be prepared, we’re going to have to be better, because that’s an area we didn’t play up to our standards on Saturday.

Q. James, what did you see on film from your defense including the experienced and inexperienced players in the fourth quarter Saturday?

JF: Yeah, you know, I think the biggest thing that probably stood out to everybody, it doesn’t take 23 years’ coaching experience to say we didn’t tackle well. I think that’s probably the biggest thing that stood out. Too many missed tackles. I mean that’s a constant conversation with defensive coaches and offensive coaches during camp and other head coaches I’ve talked about with all the rule changes, how much do you tackle in preseason to make sure your guys are ready to go in game one and don’t have a situation like that where we miss so many tackles.

I think that’s the biggest thing that stands out. Wrote a note down that we’re going to have to look at our camp model next year and do a little bit more tackling without putting ourselves in a situation that we increase the injury rate. So that’s the fine line there.

I thought we had some guys that just weren’t playing fast. We weren’t triggering off the ball up front the way I think we’re capable of. Our alignments, we weren’t in great alignments sometimes. We weren’t getting hands on receivers. They had a good play and they were getting the ball out of the quarterback’s hand quickly. They did some good things in the running game with their outside zone, and we were getting reached and not gap accountable, especially at the defensive tackle position. So gotta get those things cleaned up.

And then offensively, we were just inconsistent. We’d go on a long scoring drive one time and then go three-and-out the other. And three-and-outs are bad words. They’re bad words on offense and they’re bad words for your program, puts your defense in a tough spot as well.

And then I think the other thing is rotation. I think it’s easy to sit here and say we should have just rode our starters out. But I would say the opposite. I think we probably should have played some more young guys because I think if you look at our rep count, I think our rep count factored in the first game in the fourth quarter. I’m a big believer if we can get our rep count down, that’ll help us in the fourth quarter of that game and that will help us throughout the season. So I actually think we could have played some more guys and got some more guys some reps. I think that would be helpful for us.

And then on special teams, we had a bunch of new starters on special teams, especially on our kickoff coverage, and it hurt us. Guys ran out of their lanes. We weren’t lane disciplined, created a natural lane in there for the kickoff return. And that guy (Darrynton Evans) can run. So I think they outkicked us on Saturday. Their kickoffs consistently were deep in the end zone. Their punts were deep. And they were able to win the field position battle because of that, which is something I probably would not have thought coming into the game. So we have to get those things cleaned up as well.

But overall, we were able to find a way to get a win and learn from it and grow.

Q. James, I wanted to ask you about your new starter at center Michal Menet. How did you think he did in the first start? And also the guy he kind of flipped spots with, Connor McGovern, how do you think he did in his move back to guard?

JF: I think there was some growing pains there. I think it’s probably not an ideal situation that your center, who’s starting his first game of his career, is playing an odd defense where you got a nose right over your head. The positive was we didn’t have any bad snaps, which typically is an issue with first-time starters at center. But being in a situation where you got a true zero nose right over your head, probably not ideal. We gotta play lower. We gotta be more aggressive. We gotta displace people a little bit more often. But I think both of them, you know, with an odd front defense and playing a different position, I don’t think played up to the standards that I know they want to play at or we need them to play at.

But once again, we were able to make those corrections on film. We were able to make those corrections in a walk-through setting, and now we’ve moved on to our next opponent. And that odd front will show up on third down because Pitt does a good job with their third package, especially on third and six or more, when they get into that odd front, mug up the linebackers, give you a bunch of different pressure looks and twists that are going to be challenging as well. They do a good job of getting free runners at the quarterback.

Q. James, how would you rate your defense as far as communication with some newer faces in there, especially pre-snaps where a few times guys had to be realigned? You had to call the timeout in overtime.

JF: Yeah, the timeout in overtime was basically this was a critical play in the game, and I’m going to use the timeout. There’s no reason to save the timeout. Burn the timeout, make sure we got the best call, that everything’s communicated, that we know exactly what we’re doing and why, and that was the reason we called the timeout there. I just felt like, hey, no reason to go through the first overtime period and not use it.

But communication, yeah, again, with all the first-time starters and the first-time guys playing, gaining experience, it wasn’t as good as it needs to be. And that’s some of the things that we cleaned up on Sunday in the film session. That’s some of the things that we talked about on the field on Sunday when we walked through some of the mistakes and things like that. But yeah, we look at communication as a fundamental; no different than tackling and blocking. We weren’t as good as we needed to be on Saturday.

The interesting thing is you spend so much time focused on communication on offense when you go to away stadiums that I think sometimes you don’t emphasize how you need to communicate on defense at home. There’s a similar challenge there. So usually there’s less communication that happens on the defensive side of the ball. But it’s still critical.

Q. After the game you said all wins aren’t created equally. What was different about Saturday’s win that you can then apply to this coming Saturday?

JF: Yeah. Actually, [Director of Football Operations] Michael Hazel came up to me afterward at the press conference and said, “is that what you meant to say?”

Probably not. I probably didn’t do a great job articulating what I was trying to say there. All wins, you know, obviously are all equal. How you get to those wins are different, I guess is what I was trying to say after the game. And some are going to be by a lot of points and some are going to be by a few points, and some are going to be in overtime. But at the end of the season we’re going to look back, and that was going to be a significant win for us.

So that’s really what I was trying to say is, at the end of the day we’d love for them to all be pretty wins, but that’s not going to be the case. Any given Sunday, any given Saturday, any given Friday, I think we all see it. We saw it in our game, and we saw it watching games on Saturday and on Sunday, and even yesterday.

But the most important thing is you find a way to win and you grow and you learn, and that’s one of the things that I’m pretty proud over our career is we have typically gotten better as the season has gone on. So as long as we keep that approach and we get better each day and get better each week, I think we’ll like where we’re at come the end of the season.

Q. Your offensive line, in overtime I think you ran the ball every play, looked good, scored the touchdown. How do you think those guys maybe did at the end of the game there? Do you think they performed better? Do you think that’s a boost for them, especially when you have a new center working?

JF: I think in the first drive we played well. I think at the end of the game we played well. I think we played well in the red zone. We were great in the red zone. Why? Because we were able to run the ball. I thought our offensive line had a mentality down there. But I don’t think there’s any doubt — and it’s going to be one of my messages to the team today — is we have to play better up front on both sides of the ball. D line has got to be dominant and disruptive, and the O line has got yo be dominant and disruptive. That’s something we’re going to talk about this week. We gotta grow there.

You look at the best teams in the country, they’re able to dominate the line of scrimmage. I’m pretty confident when you look at what we’ve been able to do on the defensive line since we’ve been here, and I keep seeing our offensive line gradually chipping away at it and getting better, so once again, we gotta get better in that unit this week and do that all season.

Q. I wanted to ask you about John Reid. It didn’t seem like he was on the field a lot in the fourth quarter in overtime. I may be wrong. I just wanted to know how you evaluated his performance after watching the film. And I also wanted to ask you about Shareef Miller’s performance and the leadership he seems to be showing on the D line?

JF: Yeah, Shareef is a guy that we’re very proud of. His evolution across the board has been really impressive. I couldn’t be more proud of him the type of teammate he is, the type of student he’s become, you know, the type of player he is; the leader. He’s done a great job with the defensive line.

I actually just saw him walking across campus. I’m really proud of Shareef in so many ways. And, you know, he’s worked for everything that he’s got, hasn’t been given anything. And I’m proud of him. I mean I think Shareef’s a great example of why we’re in college athletics. To think about Shareef back in high school when I met him and we started recruiting him, and to see where he is now, I’m really proud. He was a great kid coming out of high school, but like all of us, he was immature and needed to grow up.