Upon further review: Examining Penn State’s 55-16 loss to Michigan State

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about 4 hours ago

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Where would Penn State’s offense be without freshman running back Saquon Barkley

Barkley has been the silver lining to an otherwise disappointing season for a Penn State team that Saturday night looked fundamentally flawed and lost at several points and just doesn’t have the talent to keep pace with the mighty Michigan State Spartans. It’s by no means an easy task to slow down Connor Cook and this well-rounded team that’s one of the nation’s best, but Barkley, who rushed for 103 yards on 17 carries, setting a PSU freshman record with 1,007 yards this season, proved yet again he’s a special talent. 

On a field where the talent gap and the level of execution from one sideline to the other proved to be drastic, Barkley and sophomore receiver Chris Godwin — who caught 11 passes for 109 yards and a pair of touchdowns — were as steady as they’ve been all season. 

When there was a 4th-down conversion on the table Godwin stepped up to move the chains. When the Lions struggled to find the end zone right away riding Barkley into the red zone and a slant falling incomplete to Godwin, Christian Hackenberg went back to his top target on third down for the score. 

“I can’t really be happy about my performance because my biggest goal is for us to win as a team and if we don’t win it just kind of takes away from what happens,” said Godwin who has 63 catches for 968 yards this season. “I’m confident we can fix things so we come away from our next game with a victory.”

Barkley, who hasn’t been made available to the media this season per James Franklin’s media policy where freshmen and transfer players are off limits, has acclimated well to the spotlight, teammates said. Much like Hackenberg did three years ago as a bright-eyed freshman, Barkley’s breakout season shows promise for the future. While the Lions’ future will be a focal point during bowl prep Penn State has two young cornerstones to build with. 

“I thought he was obviously very talented and he burst on the scene and he made a lot of really good plays,” Hackenberg said of Barkley. “Talent is something you really can’t coach and he has a lot of it and I think you look at his work ethic and that’s something that goes into it. You don’t just rush for 1,000 yards just on straight talent. He’s put in a lot of work and there’s a lot of people that go into that. … It’s awesome for him. … He’s earned everyone’s respect in the locker room at a young age and that’s special.”

Franklin said he did not leave Barkley in at the end of the game because the record was within reach, rather he wanted many of the offense’s young players to take reps with backup quarterback Trace McSorley who entered the game with under 10 minutes left and the score out of reach.

Tracking the tackling 

It’s time for the weekly why is the tackling still problematic and what can be done to fix it part of the notebook. It was magnified the last month during the Lions’ losses to ranked opponents and while injuries and depth can account for part of it it doesn’t tell the whole story. 

Penn State opted to scale back the contact in practice earlier this season while waiting to make it to their late-season bye week. After the bye parts of the practice schedule remained the same with limited contact while the Lions stressed getting in an athletic position as if they were making a tackling, but not driving their teammate to the ground.  

“Everyone has their nicks and knacks, but everyone not getting their full contact in in practice really makes a difference I think,” said cornerback Grant Haley

Franklin said earlier this week the team was as banged up as it’s been all year. However, every team in late November has issues to overcome so while Penn State might be reeling late in the season the breakdowns in fundamentals weren’t fixed.  

The case for Carl

Penn State’s defense shifted tackle Anthony Zettel back to his 2013 position as a defensive end and plugged senior Tarow Barney in at defensive tackle alongside Austin Johnson. Defensive end Torrence Brown checked in after Carl Nassib was taken out of the game after two plays while dealing with what the television broadcast said was a hamstring injury.  

Nassib played two plays against Michigan and just two against Michigan State. Defensive end Garrett Sickels didn’t make the trip due to an undisclosed injury and without both starting ends the Lions failed to register a sack or a tackle for loss. 

“Not having Nassib and Sickels in there had an impact on us in third down, had an impact on us on first and second down,” Franklin said. “Good players.” 

Flag fest

Penn State’s offense was penalized six times and offensive lineman Andrew Nelson, who played left and right tackle Saturday, accounted for three of the penalties. The Lions’ starting offensive line — with Nelson at left tackle, Derek Dowrey at left guard, Angelo Mangiro at center, Brian Gaia at right guard and Brendan Mahon at right tackle— was the same combination it used earlier this season against Buffalo. 

The Lions put Paris Palmer in at left tackle in the second half and moved Nelson back to right tackle. The Lions also used Palmer in their jumbo package in the first half, much like they did last week against Michigan too. Still, in the regular season the finale the Lions hadn’t found their best group of five. Hackenberg was sacked twice and the Lions surrendered 39 sacks this season, just five away from tying the school record that was set a year ago.

“Jumping offsides, there was a couple times where they did a good job with their environment in the stadium with the fans where we jumped offsides and now you’re in a first and 15 situation or a 2nd and 15 situation against a good football team so it makes it difficult to stay on schedule, create manageable third-down situations,” Franklin said.

What happens next?

Penn State did mid-season evaluations and James Franklin said the Lions will do staff evaluations again before the bowl game and then after the bowl game as well.  

“We’re evaluating every single day, but the evaluation will happen in between now and the bowl and then again after the bowl when the season is over,” he said.

Franklin also said he will meet with several players in the coming weeks to hash out a plan about their futures. While it would seem likely that standout juniors Austin Johnson and Christian Hackenberg would be at the top of that list, Hackenberg shrugged off questions about his future after the game and said he’s focused on bowl prep, calling it a mini version of spring practice. The Lions will learn their bowl destination next Sunday evening.

“We will have some conversations with a number of guys and come up with a plan that makes sense for them and makes sense for Penn State,” Franklin said. “Look forward to doing that here in the next couple weeks.”

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Penn State vs. Michigan State prediction, what to look for and more

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 day ago

The pick: Michigan State: 30, Penn State: 10

What to look for: What will Penn State decide to do with this offensive line and will it even matter? The Lions pulled left tackle Paris Palmer last week in the third quarter and James Franklin was noncommittal when asked if Palmer will be back in the starting lineup this week. However, as has been the case for much of the last two seasons, replacing one player has left the door open for others to step in and give up a key play here and there. 

Center Wendy Laurent is coming off probably one of the worst games he’s played this season and while Penn State can continue to use Andrew Nelson at left tackle for Palmer the void at right tackle hasn’t been easy to fill with Brendan Mahon stepping in for Nelson. 

So, can one of the tackles slow down Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun who has 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss this season? If not, that school sack record of 44 from a year ago that the Lions surrendered could be quickly approaching again this season. Penn State surrendered 37 sacks this season and with two games left who knows what happens up front?  

Getting all five rolling at once might see too far fetched at this point, but with little competition on their heels— remember these redshirt freshmen aren’t playing for a reason and they need more time to grow into their roles— the line needs to show some type of improvement after the way it played last week. 

Worth mentioning that: James Franklin said his team is as banged up as it’s ever been. Franklin mentioned this Tuesday during his weekly news conference and while he doesn’t discuss injuries and the Lions don’t release an injury report, Penn State needs DE Carl Nassib to be active to have a shot —even if it’s a slim one— at hanging in this game. Nassib played two plays last week before being held out the rest of the game with an undisclosed injury, presumably the same thing that kept him out of the end of the game against Northwestern a few weeks ago. 

Penn State’s tackling was shaky for much of the Michigan game and if players are banged up this means the tackling and the run defense could both be exploited if the Lions can’t play through some of these nagging injuries. 

On the other side of the ball, RB Saquon Barkley (904 rushing yards) is 98 yards shy of tying Penn State’s true freshman rushing record. D.J. Dozier leads the way with 1,002 yards and Barkley already passed Eric McCoo’s 822 yards, a record McCoo set in 1998. 

WR Chris Godwin (52 catches, 859 yards) also has a shot to go over 1,000 yards this season. The sophomore is averaging 78.1 yards per game and it’s hard to believe that last year at this time Godwin had just 19 catches for 198 yards and one touchdown. The last 1,000-yard receiver Penn State had was Allen Robinson in 2013. 

Christian Hackenberg in regular season finales has completed 42-of-75 passes for 534 yards with four touchdowns to one interception. One of Hackenberg’s best games of his career was the 2013 season finale against Wisconsin where he completed 21-of-30 passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns in the upset against Wisconsin. However, last year against the Spartans Hackenberg completed just 46 percent of his 45 pass attempts for 195 yards while firing an interception and absorbing three sacks. 

Don’t be surprised if: Penn State pulls out a few gadget plays they haven’t used yet this season. The Lions missed on a play last week where if I recall correctly it was Barkley who tossed the ball back to Hackenberg who just under threw a wide open Brandon Polk as some pressure got in No. 14’s face. It had a chance to be a big gain if they would’ve connected and I’d imagine they have something different or a few new variations to use this week. Plays like that and those wrinkles off the speed sweeps that we’ve seen PSU use this season can help to open things up a bit and why not take some of those shots in a game on the road where the Lions really have nothing to lose?

Miss any of the Post-Gazette’s Penn State coverage during the week? Get caught up here:

LB Brandon Bell living up to big play nickname for Penn State defense

5 takeaways from James Franklin’s weekly news conference

Notebook: James Franklin says Penn State o-line is improved this season, stresses patience 

Junior DT Austin Johnson mum on potential NFL future

Is Penn State better on special teams or along the o-line this season?

Penn State still searching for answers in all three phases

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Five takeaways from James Franklin’s weekly news conference

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It might not be easy to see on the surface, but there are positives to take away from Penn State football and the program’s development this season, James Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. 

“You've got to look for them, but there's a lot of positives in the program,” Franklin said, before mentioning the team’s community service endeavors and their work in the classroom. 

Seeing progress in all the team’s phases, largely including the on-field product, hasn’t been as obvious as fans and even Franklin would like. The offense, ranked 111th in the FBS (337.5 ypg), struggled in the redzone in last Saturday’s loss to Michigan, settling for three field goals on three redzone trips. The offensive line, which contributed to a school record 44 sacks a year ago, is on par to match that total this season, surrendering 36 sacks with two games remaining. Penn State’s special teams continues struggling with kick coverage and hasn’t received steady performances from their kickers or punters for most of the season.

“I think we have improved,” Franklin said. “Again, you look at our conference record, it's better right now. You look at some of the things we've been able to do on offense, defense, and special teams. You look at times we've done some nice things, so I think we have improved. We have more wins right now than we did at this time last year, so there is progress being made. 

“Is it to the degree that everybody wants it to be, including myself? No. No, it's not. Is it the pace that everybody wants it to be? No, it's not. But there is progress being made. Our O-line has improved from the beginning of the year. Our O-line has improved from last year.”

Is this the right offensive coaching staff?

James Franklin might have a decision to make after the season ends and whether or not offensive coordinator John Donovan is around for year three of the Franklin-Penn State era has been questioned by fans and the media for much of this season.  

I asked Franklin if he thinks this offensive staff he has the right coaches to make this system work and he reiterated that he’s focused on preparing for the Lions’ trip to Michigan State Saturday. However, he wanted it known that he is aware of the team’s problems and the coach who reads seemingly everything said that nobody is taking a more detailed look at the program’s problems than him. 

“I want to make sure that you and your fans and everybody are aware, I can identify and I can see the problems and the challenges that we have just like everybody else can, and we're addressing them every single day,” he said. “We're addressing them every single day.”

Addressing the timeout problems

Franklin said in his five years with this coaching staff they’ve never had as many issues with burning time outs as they have this season. Saturday he said after the loss the staff would have a discussion about it and Tuesday he said it’s a combination of the staff needing to do a better job and young players needing to be on the same page.

“I’ve made it very, very clear that those things are going to change moving forward,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in that, and it's an area that we as a coaching staff have got to do a better job of, and that starts with me.”

Franklin took the blame for not calling a timeout soon enough at the end of the loss to Northwestern and Saturday with under six minutes left in the game the Lions were out of timeous, again bringing that issue into focus. 

Getting too much push

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but James Franklin said Penn State’s play on the offensive side of the ball wasn’t physical enough in the trenches. Of course it’s not the first time this season (or last) we’ve heard this as the Lions’ o-line has struggled the last two seasons for a variety of reasons and against the Wolverines’ physical front Penn State had several plays getting pushed around up front.  

Franklin wouldn’t say if left tackle Paris Palmer, who was pulled at the end of the third quarter after getting beaten for a sack, will stay out of the lineup when asked. He said they were trying to move players around to create the best match ups and that it wasn’t just one person struggling.

“We're getting there,” he said of the o-line’s progress. “We had a discussion as a staff the other day. You watch our guys in practice in one-on-ones against our d-line in some of the competitive periods that we go against our defense from the beginning of the year to now or from last year to now, it's dramatically improved. But again, not as much as we would all hope. You'd like it to be a little bit faster.”

Tackling all the issues 

Penn State’s tackling woes popped up again against Michigan and Franklin said the problems are a combination of things. Players aren’t always swarming to the ball and they’re not always using the right technique. They might over run a player or playing against shifty playmakers —and with this being their third consecutive ranked opponent there’s no shortage of playmakers they’ve gone against. 

DE Carl Nassib didn’t play last week beyond the first quarter and while Franklin doesn’t discuss specific injuries, it sounds like a lot of Lions are spending time in the training room this week.

“We’re banged up,” Franklin said while addressing the tackling. “We're banged up right now this week probably more so than we've been in a long time. That's shown up as the season has gone on, but probably more so this week than really in the year and a half we've been here.”

Quotable: On kicker Joey Julius, Penn State’s 265-pound kicker who has taken some hits while trying to make tackles this season: “We've got to either kick it better so the other guys can cover the field, or he's going to have to put a neck roll on.

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Penn State DT Austin Johnson mum on NFL Draft

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Defensive tackle Austin Johnson smiled and said he’s focused on closing out the season in the best way possible to send the seniors out on a high note. 

Of course the Lions’ junior defensive tackle could also be coming down the homestretch of his own collegiate career, one where his production this season helped skyrocket his NFL Draft stock where if he would choose to declare he’s been ranked among the top-five tackles in the country by CBS Sports and could be a first or second-round pick. At 6-3, 325 lbs. with a rare combination of strength and speed to match, Johnson will likely project ahead of senior line mate Anthony Zettel, who moved inside from defensive end last season and will likely have questions to answer about his size during the NFL Draft process. 

“I really don't pay that much attention to it,” Johnson said of his draft potential. “My mom has kind of the Google alert. She puts my name and has a Google alert, so that's pretty funny. She sends me stuff, I look at it, and just kind of keep on going on about my day. It's about this team. This is where I am right now. Yeah, it's just about this team and making this year for the seniors good just by winning this game.”

Last week junior QB Christian Hackenberg, a projected early-round draft pick, said he too wasn’t thinking past the end of the season.

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Monday thoughts: Has Penn State's o-line and special teams taken steps forward this season?

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 5 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Last I checked Thanksgiving is this week and Penn State has one regular season game left. Of course there’s a bowl game after that and James Franklin was correct when he said after the game that this team needs every practice and every meeting the rest of this season. 

It’s indeed November and as I wrote in today’s Post-Gazette many of Penn State’s problems aren’t new and they didn’t show up overnight. For much of this season and last they’ve dealt with a porous offensive line and poor play on special teams. 

The trip to East Lansing, MI. to play No. 6 Michigan State will complete a three-game stretch where Penn State played ranked opponents in Northwestern, Michigan and of course Michigan State. The puzzling thing to me is looking at this Penn State team and trying to figure out if the struggles of the offensive line or the special teams have been more problematic this year? Both areas have been bad this season and this comes after it was a major point of emphasis in the offseason.

Remember the “world tour” special teams coordinator Charles Huff took in the offseason to visit with and learn from numerous NFL teams about how they handle their special teams?

Remember the school record 44 sacks Penn State’s offensive line surrendered a year ago and how that number was used as motivation for the offensive line all offseason? Well, a year later I really can’t say with certainty that Penn State is better off in either area. Christian Hackenberg was sacked 36 times this season —and 101 times in his three-years under center— and with two games remaining that school record (44) could be within reach. The special teams surrendered a 55-yard kick return during a critical point in the game and a fumbled punt deep in their own territory made way for seven points for the Wolverines. 

Penn State’s offensive line additions this season included graduate transfer Kevin Reiner who wasn’t able to crack the starting lineup and besides contributing on special teams was a non-factor. Left tackle Paris Palmer, the top rated junior college offensive tackle in the country, has struggled against some of the better defenses Penn State faced and was pulled in the third quarter on Saturday after these back-to-back plays:  

Penn State moved right tackle Andrew Nelson to left tackle and put Brendan Mahon at right tackle, but things didn’t get much better up front:

What went wrong on the four sacks on Saturday?

  1. Tight end Brent Wilkerson was just beaten as the defender looped around him to close in on Hackenberg
  2. The pocket collapses as RB Saquon Barkley was pushed backwards and rather than throwing the ball away Hackenberg tries to spin out of it to keep the play alive but just ends up going even farther backwards. 
  3. Left tackle Paris Palmer was beaten (video clip above)
  4. Michigan brings a five-man rush and right tackle Brendan Mahon can’t hold up while center Wendy Laurent is driven backwards before slipping, thus creating the Hackenberg sandwich. (video clip above)

Yes, this Michigan defense is one of the best in the country, but take away Saquon Barkley’s 56-yard first-quarter run (Andrew Nelson and Brian Gaia did a nice job getting their guys to the ground to spring him) and for most of the afternoon the line was getting pushed around. Center Wendy Laurent was driven backwards a few times and the most telling play of Penn State’s inability to run the ball against the stingy Michigan defense was down around the goal line when the Lions beefed up the line with a jumbo seven-man front, plus o-lineman/fullback Derek Dowrey and an extra blocking tight end. With their biggest bodies on the field (Paris Palmer checked back in for the play too) they got no push and the Barkley rush actually lost three yards. 

Other thoughts: 

Why is Penn State hesitant to change punt returners? 

DeAndre Thompkins, a speedy redshirt freshman, lost four fumbles this season and after he lost the one against Michigan Penn State made a switch. Back-up returner Gregg Garrity, a walk-on from North Allegheny High School, came into the game and returned the next punt eight yards. 

I guess freshman Brandon Polk, one of the team’s best threats in open space, probably hasn’t been consistent enough in practice (or, maybe they haven’t even repped him there since camp?). Running bak Mark Allen, another punt return option in the summer, hasn’t played in four of the last five games. This might not matter much given the issues on special teams as a whole, but I was surprised that Garrity, who if I recall correctly hasn’t even traveled to all of the road games, was next in line. Makes me wonder what they would’ve done had this happened on the road and who along with Garrity and Von Walker are their other punt return options? 

Can tackling improve in one week?

Off the top of my head I can’t think of a game where Penn State tackled worse this season. James Franklin said after the game he thought at times the tackling was good. I’m curious to see on Tuesday, after having a chance to watch the film if he’s going to say differently. During the course of a game he’s got probably 50 other things to keep an eye on, but the tackling stood out to me as an issue.

The cornerbacks struggled on the perimeter as John Reid and Grant Haley, who have both done well in coverage for much of the season, weren’t in great positions to make tackles and/or they couldn’t make the tackle when they were in a good position. Penn State says tackling is emphasized every day in practice yet the execution, with a team that was as fresh as it’s been coming off a bye week, wasn’t there. 

Kick coverage can’t keep having lapses

Jourdan Lewis did his part to answer the bell when Penn State pulled within five points. The Lions’ special teams, like it did against Northwestern when it gave up a 96-yard kick return for a touchdown, once again surrendered a huge play, this time allowing Lewis to break free for a 55-yard return that sparked a touchdown drive. The return was something else and so was Penn State’s tackling on the play.

The positive was earlier in the game Penn State’s Von Walker blocked a punt, but the PSU kick coverage can’t continue to have errors like this. Remember, Penn State uses a lot of starters on special teams, so this shouldn’t be an area that’s blamed for having a lack of talent or depth. 

Will year three be any different, or is it really about year four?

Of course there are two games left and the always important 15 practices that come with bowl prep, but let’s just look ahead here and think big picture for a second. It takes time to build a program and James Franklin stressed that since he arrived 22 months ago and said generating hype while managing expectations is one of the most difficult parts of his job. 

When Franklin arrived he talked about year three being the year where everything was in line as far as rebuilding scholarship depth and having those offensive linemen who redshirted as true freshman a year ago ready to roll. That’s next year. Assuming QB Christian Hackenberg declares for the NFL Draft after this season Penn State will have to break in QB Trace McSorley, a redshirt freshman this season who entered in mop-up time and for the occasional play after Hackenberg has been sent to the sideline after taking a big hit. With a new QB comes inevitable growing pains.

Penn State will also need someone to step in at left guard for senior Angelo Mangiro, or they could move center Wendy Laurent to guard and work in a new center. The rest of the line has to take a big step forward, which based off the way things went this season hasn’t cut it. Really, maybe year four, (likely McSorley’s second year as a starter, Saquon Barkley’s junior year) is a better indicator of where this program is headed and whether or not the talented recruiting classes will develop and mature in the way Penn State needs them to?

Who knows if Franklin will make any changes to his coaching staff this offseason and really it’s difficult to tell if it’s coaching, players not executing, a lack of talent at some of these spots or a combination of all three. In some instances, take the tight ends for example, I don’t think it’s on offensive coordinator John Donovan (who also is the TE position coach) if his players don’t catch the ball. It’s a lack of focus and a lack of execution that falls on the players.

Of course the offense as a whole though, ranked 111th in the FBS and 126th (27 percent) on 3rd down conversions raises a lot of questions about whether or not Donovan and his offense, which was problematic last year too, will be around for year three. 

How can Charles Huff (RB coach/special teams coordinator) be evaluated when using two walk-on kickers and two walk-on punters? That’s part of the hand he was dealt, but I don’t give PSU a pass on the kick coverage issues though and that’s been magnified in the last two games. With two scholarships tied up in a kicker and a punter in the incoming 2016 class help should be on the way. As I said last year with the offensive line (looks like we all might’ve been fooled a bit there....) special teams has to get better, right?

What is offensive line coach Herb Hand really working with? His most versatile player (Angelo Mangiro) was moved from center to guard and his best player, right tackle Andrew Nelson, missed time because of various injuries and on occasion was moved to left tackle. Brendan Mahon was taken of the starting lineup, Paris Palmer has been inconsistent protecting Hackenberg’s blindside and Brian Gaia, once a defensive lineman, has also struggled. This makes me wonder about the developing talent behind these guys and if any of those players who will be redshirt sophomores next season will be ready to challenge for spots. What Penn State has out there now has to be their best, but how much better are they and is this entire team from last year to now?

Measuring growth and development of this entire team will continue to come into focus for the final two games, especially as the Lions then shift their focus to bowl prep and the valuable reps that come with it for many of the younger players. 

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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