Franklin won’t name starting QB
Following are the highlights of James Franklin’s Tuesday press conference:
Saturday’s game: vs. Iowa, 3:30 p.m. (Big Ten Network)
Sean Clifford’s early struggles last week at Nebraska that included an interception and a strip sack that resulted in a Cornhuskers’ touchdown forced Franklin to bench Clifford for redshirt sophomore Will Levis just a few minutes into the second quarter.
Levis sparked the Nittany Lions’ offense and helped lead the charge back from a three-score deficit (27-6) before losing in the last minute, 30-23. He appeared to have a stronger grasp of the offense and was a bigger threat on designed quarterback runs.
However, on Tuesday, Franklin refused to name a starting quarterback, saying the coaching staff has had conversations with both Clifford and Levis, and that a decision will be made later in the week.
Franklin said that some teams no longer use depth charts and the decision would not be made public.
“We will evaluate that as the week goes on based on what we do this week, what we’ve done this season and what we have done this year,” Franklin said. “Obviously, Will came in and did some good things and put himself in this position, and he’s earned it. No different than how Sean earned the opportunity to be our starting quarterback last year and our starting quarterback to start the season. Will was able to come in and be a part of this conversation.”
Franklin praised Levis for his play on Saturday, as the redshirt sophomore came in and led the Nittany Lions on four scoring drives. Levis completed 14 of 31 passes for 219 yards and added another 61 yards on the ground. He did not turn over the ball. Clifford has been intercepted six times this season and fumbled twice — both returned for touchdowns.
“I think Will has a really strong arm and he can drive the ball and make defenses defend the whole field, which is helpful,” Franklin said. “His arm strength is going to help with yards after the catch and that showed up on Saturday. He is a big, physical runner. He played hard and played with passion and did some good things.”
One of the biggest issues in Saturday’s loss to Nebraska was an inability to turn red-zone trips into touchdowns.
Penn State has settled for field goals more often than not, as the Nittany Lions have scored just eight touchdowns in 19 trips to the red zone. Penn State has scored on 63% of drives inside the red zone, which ranks 123rd of 126 teams in the FBS.
Only Illinois is worse in the red zone in the Big Ten.
“When you get into the red zone, the details are magnified because the windows shrink,” Franklin said. “There is no doubt we have to improve there. You have to be able to score points, and you have to be able to score touchdowns if you want to win at a high level. Early on in the season I thought that it was because we weren’t running the ball effectively enough but you have to be able to do both. You have to be able to run and threaten people with passing combinations.”
Franklin noted that false positive COVID tests have created an issue for the Nittany Lions in recent weeks.
He said the team has had “39 false positives” among players and staff and the Lions have had more false positives than other schools in the Big Ten. Franklin said the positive tests have occurred multiple days in a row in some circumstances.
“Every time we have one of those, a guy misses a practice,” he said. “There is a silver lining in everything and the positive is, knock on wood, that those are not positive COVID tests. It can be an emotional rollercoaster throughout the week. You have staff members going through it and other staff members have to jump into their role for practice that day.”
Opening drives have been a point of emphasis for years under Franklin, but the issue has been magnified as the Lions have given up a touchdown on their opponents’ opening drive in each of the past three games.
“That has been a fairly consistent theme, and it’s something we have talked about with coach (Brent) Pry and the defensive staff,” Franklin said. “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, where one goes for a touchdown and one drive starts at the 15-yard line, that’s challenging as well. I think for the most part, it is tackling and being able to adjust to all of the different looks we are getting early in games.”
For the first time this season, Penn State moved the ball effectively on the ground as the Nittany Lions rushed for 245 yards and two scores on 52 carries against Nebraska.
Devyn Ford led the way with 66 yards on 16 carries, but freshmen Caziah Holmes and Keyvone Lee were the ones who looked explosive, as Holmes broke off a 36-yard run and Lee had a 31-yard TD carry.
“I thought last week that Devyn and Keyvone and Caziah did some good things,” Franklin said. “Devyn is carrying most of the load and those other guys have been able to give it a go and are doing some nice things as well. I see Devyn growing and I think we ran the ball last week as well as we have all year. The group is starting to come along and we are going to need them to continue to come along.”