Penn State rewind: Why wasn't the starting d-line on for TD drives, dishing out deep balls and more

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 1 day ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s offense continues searching for an identity and if the Lions had a two-minute drive with the game on the line really who knows if they’d throw the ball or not?

Three of their home games have been played in the rain, but this is the Big Ten and it’s only October, which means what happens when more rain, sleet or snow enters the equation? Yes, the offense looks completely different without freshman RB Saquon Barkley (see the Temple game where he had one carry as another example of that) but Saturday Penn State went to their third, fourth and fifth-string running backs more than QB Christian Hackenberg’s strong right arm.

Hey, Penn State is +8 in the turnover margin, but grinding out a win against Army isn’t pretty, no matter how many times the Lions wanted to pound home the old cliche that they went 1-0 last week.

So, let’s revisit a few plays in this week’s installment of the Penn State rewind:

End of the 3rd quarter: Setting up the Gesicki TD

Penn State started playing the hit song ‘Let it Go’ from the movie Frozen at one point during the game and really there couldn’t have been a more fitting song for the lack of Penn State’s vertical passing threat. The Lions remembered that Hackenberg has a big arm late in the third quarter and the results were a 49-yard catch by Chris Godwin and then a 33-yard touchdown catch for TE Mike Gesicki.

Back-to-back plays, back-to-back deep balls seemed to settle things down a bit from fans who by the looks of it on social media and in the stadium have more than a few questions about the play calling.

So what happened on the Godwin catch?

“I got lined up and saw the safety was a little bit low and the cornerback he was in man-to-man coverage so with the play that we had running, I was running a post route and was able to get over top of the corner and Hack gave me a great ball,” Godwin said after the game. “In that point and time it’s just me making a play. [Wide receivers] coach [Josh] Gattis has us each and every day working on our ball stills to that we can come down with the 50-50 balls and I was able to do it that time.”

Godwin was slow to get up after landing on the ball and went to the sideline after it knocked the wind out of him. The sophomore is Penn State’s top receiver thus far (23 catches, 349 yards) and has become a reliable deep threat, especially with those 50-50 balls.

Gesicki’s first career touchdown

Following up the deep ball to Godwin Penn State went to tight end Mike Gesicki for his first and only catch of the game.

Hackenberg had time on both these passes —which hasn’t always been the case this season or last— so him dropping back, setting his feet and delivering to the 6-foot-6 tight end left Hackenberg a little more animated than usual. It was also a big play for the sophomore tight end who continued rebounding after having two drops on one series against Buffalo, one of which he was headed right for the end zone.

“Christian gave me a great ball, the o-line blocked well and really the guys that got me open were Saeed and I couldn’t tell you the other receiver who was out there,” said Gesicki. By the looks of it appeared DaeSean Hamilton was also out there. “But they ran great routes and I was able to make the catch and get in the end zone. I’m just happy for that opportunity.”

After having 43 passing yards in just about the entire the three quarters prior to this three-play 91-yard drive —all of which came through the air— No. 14 celebrated with Gesicki, who he hosted just a couple years ago during the tight end’s official visit.

Where’s the starting d-line?

Penn State ranks 15th in the nation in total defense and second with 18 sacks. With a 20-7 lead in the fourth quarter and Army’s tricky triple-option reeling off 21 yards on six plays, after a 7-yard rush on 3rd and 2 moves the chains Penn State makes a wholesale change up front. Gone are starters Carl Nassib, Anthony Zettel, Austin Johnson and Garrett Sickles (who were all in on the third-down play) and in comes redshirt freshman Torrence Brown, redshirt freshman Anotine White, senior Tarow Barney and redshirt sophomore Curtis Cothran. Backup senior linebacker Ben Kline — who was running the scout team just a couple weeks ago after being out of action since the Minnesota game in 2013 due to various injuries — also stayed in on this drive.

White picks up the fullback, Kline doesn’t read it quickly and or correctly and takes on the wrong guy and just like that in one play —with missed tackles along the sideline— the Lions are burned for a 56-yard touchdown run and the next thing you know it’s a 20-14 game with 10:59 remaining.

Now, Penn State subs up front quite a bit and I asked d-line coach Sean Spencer about this philosophy last week.

“I have it written out prior to the start so I actually know exactly what I want to do for every particular series,” Spencer said last Thursday on a conference call. “They know it going into the game so it’s not really a shock. Obviously if a drive extends then I’l rotate guys in and I kind of get a feel for the game too. … I want those guys to remain fresh.”

Penn State likes the depth and talent they have up front, Spencer said he’s been doing it this way with rotations his whole career and said he goes into the game with an idea of who and when he’s going to mix up and then lets the flow of the game dictate substitutions to try and keep players fresh. They don’t always sub four players at once though and keep in mind DE Evan Schwan, who usually subs for Sickels, was inactive due to an injury. So, essentially there was a third-string defensive end out there with a third-string tackle (DT Parker Cothren backs up starter Austin Johnson. Barney and White are tackles two and three behind Zettel).

“It’s what I tell every recruit when they come here that I’m going to rotate and I’m going to play a lot of guys so it’s really not a shock,” Spencer said. “It’s a little dramatic at some points in time and I probably drive coach Shoop crazy when he sees guys running off — sometimes he’ll make the reference that we just made a hockey substitution — but I’m on it and it’s something I pay great attention to and detail throughout the game.”

Penn State’s back-up defensive line — this time with ends Cothran and Brown and tackles Barney and Cothren in the middle— also was on the field for Army’s third-quarter touchdown drive, which made it a 13-7 game.

Army went 76 yards on eight plays that time, complete with an A.J. Schurr three-yard rushing touchdown. 

How did they miss this?

It’s pretty obvious when sitting in the press box, watching the game live and you see Army shuffling players on and off the field, not realizing for several seconds that they indeed have 12 men on the field. Hey, I could even see that clear as day and my vision isn’t great.

QB Christian Hackenberg has to snap this ball and capitalize on the penally. He’s looking the other way, but why wasn’t anyone on the headset or the sideline relaying that information? Army’s 12th man took about four seconds to get off the field and Penn State just missed it. I know one of the reasons Franklin said offensive coordinator John Donovan prefers calling the game from the box as opposed to the sideline is so he can see the whole field.

Somehow, someway nobody up top or down below was able to capitalize on this in the first quarter. Penn State ended up getting a touchdown out of the drive, but it’s still a missed opportunity that they can learn from. 

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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What are they saying? Penn State players on win vs. Army

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- It wasn’t pretty and it raised a lot of questions about Penn State’s offense, but the Lions did improve to 4-1 with Saturday’s 20-14 win vs. Army

What did players have to say as they ready for the full slate of conference play?

CB Grant Haley


LB Jason Cabinda


LB Von Walker


WR Chris Godwin


TE Mike Gesicki


Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Upon further review: Examining Penn State’s 20-14 win vs. Army

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State’s offense without freshman running back Saquon Barkley certainly isn’t for the better. In the two games Barkley hasn’t played in – okay so he had one carry against Temple—so the two games where Barkley hasn’t carried the ball at least twice, the offense put up 180 and 264 total yards.

Penn State wide receiver Chris Godwin (12) beats Army defensive back Chris Carnegie (14) to make a fingertip catch of a pass from quarterback Christian Hackenberg. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The trio of redshirt freshmen, Mark Allen, Nick Scott and Johnathan Thomas shared time in the backfield with Barkley and Akeel Lynch both missing the game due to injury. James Franklin said after the game that the Lions didn’t hold anybody out who could’ve played. Now, whether that’s true or not is anyone’s guess. Franklin continues to keep injuries close to the vest and also said on Tuesday that he thought safety Marcus Allen would play. Allen wasn’t dressed.

As for Barkley, who sported sweats on the sideline, Penn State’s ground game posted 3.2 yards per carry in his absence. The big-play capability was largely gone and it showed.

“The guy has the ability to make guys miss,” Franklin said of Barkley. “We had a few times tonight where we had guys one on one and we weren’t able to do that. … It obviously has a factor in the game.” 

What is different about James Franklin’s role with the offense?

He said after the Temple loss he would be more involved with the offense, which he said meant offering suggestions throughout the week and on game days, but not necessarily calling plays. With the offense posting 264 total yards (they entered the game averaging 345.5, which was 110 of 127 FBS teams) Franklin reiterated that the offense simply needs to do better.

“He’s always kind of been with the offense, always on the offensive side of the ball at practices and stuff like that,” tight end Mike Gesicki said. “As in specifics and play calling I’m not really in on all that kind of stuff so I’m not really sure, but coach Franklin, he’s doing a good job with the offense and coach Donovan, we’re very happy to have him as our OC and definitely as our tight end coach. I love coach Donovan, he’s a great guy, a great mentor for myself and I’m just happy to get this win.”

Said guard Brian Gaia: “He comes to our meetings at least once a week now to make sure certain things he notices, and maybe coach Hand notices as well, are going well. He is another set of eyes that can help out.” 

Said WR Chris Godwin: “He hasn’t really approached anything different. Our offensive coaching staff they do a great job preparing us each and every week and it’s just a matter of us executing at the end of the day.”

Said QB Christian Hackenberg: “I think he’s done a good job. He keeps our mental psyche in check at all times. He does a great job of finding ways to motivate people. People step up and people react well to what he does so I think he plays a major role in terms of getting us mentally prepared to go out and do what we need to do on a consistent basis.”

Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan hasn’t been made available to the media since the team’s media day in early August.

Did you notice…

-Sophomore safety Troy Apke, playing in place of injured starter Marcus Allen, made his first career start.

-RB Mark Allen, filling in for Lynch and Barkley also earned his first start.

-RB Nick Scott scored his first career touchdown on an 11-yard run in the first quarter.

-RB Johnathan Thomas, part of the trio of redshirt freshman backs, recorded his first career carry as the backs rotated by series early in the game.

-TE Mike Gesicki’s 33-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter was the first of his career. Saturday is also Gesicki’s birthday and he said the touchdown was his best gift thus far.

-Senior LB Ben Kline, who came in for the final play of the first half, saw his first game action since the 2013 game at Minnesota. Kline missed last season with an injury and worked his way back, running with the scout team a few weeks ago.

-Penn State missed a shot to catch Army in transition on 3rd and 4 at the Army 23 yard line in the first quarter. The Black Knights were running a 12th player to the sideline but nobody on Penn State’s side could snap the ball, or recognize the need to snap the ball, quickly enough. The play resulted in an incomplete pass intended for Nick Scott and Penn State converted the 4th down to DaeSean Hamilton before Scott capped the drive with his 11-yard touchdown run.

Injuries piling up

Center Angelo Mangiro hobbled to the locker room with his left knee heavily taped during the third quarter. He didn’t return to the field and in his place was reserve center Wendy Laurent. If Mangiro can’t go next week Penn State’s line would be dealt another blow. Left tackle Andrew Nelson has yet to return to the field since the end of the first half against Buffalo.

-Punter Chris Gulla also exited the game after trying to make a tackle in the third quarter and looked shaken up as he tried to get off the field.

-RBs Akeel Lynch and Saquon Barkley didn’t dress and neither did safety Marcus Allen or linebacker Brandon Bell.

Mr. Positive

Questions about Penn State’s offense and offensive coordinator John Donovan sounded to wear on Franklin in his post-game news conference.

Several “we need to do better” remarks were met by Franklin raising his voice at the last question of the day, one about how fans will respond with a six-point victory again Army, a team where Penn State was a heavy favorite.

“I’m worried about making sure our guys go to school, get an education, make great choices I the community and find a way to win games,” Franklin said. “That’s what we’re going to do. We won today. We’re 1-0. We’re 1-0 and we’re going to do everything in our power to be 1-0 next week and I’m going to come in here and I’m going to be positive. I’m going to be positive and I’m not going to go down that road with anybody. Love our players, love our coaches, love our media, love everybody. Love everybody.”

Franklin has come across as overly positive, so much so that it’s been questioned whether or not it’s at times genuine, since his arrival. Players said he’ll raise his voice in practice and such, but overall keeps the tone positive.

“I’m sure he finds his own ways to do it but he really doesn’t show it as much to us,” Hackenberg said of Franklin seemingly never being negative. “There’s times obviously where tensions are high at practice or whatever and he gets into it in the moment like everyone else.”

What’s Franklin like when he’s mad?

“The positive attitude that he brings is really almost 100 percent. It’s like 99.9 percent,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said.

Is it believable?

“Yeah, absolutely,” Cabinda said. 

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4. 

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James Franklin fields questions on PSU's offense, John Donovan and more

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- James Franklin met with the media following Penn State’s 20-14 victory against Army. Here are some of the highlights on the offense, the offensive coordinator, injuries, fan expectations and more.

Q: Can you evaluate the offense from the start of the season to now?

James Franklin: “Not where we need to be. There’s no doubt about it. Not where we need to be. We’re inconsistent. What’s killing us is penalties. We get ourself in too many long yardage situations. I do think the weather has had a factor in some of that, but that’s not the reason. That’s been a factor, one of many factors. The penalties, we’re not in a position to overcome long yardage situations on third downs and things like that. We did pick one up on a screen and we almost picked up another one obviously handing the ball off on a run play so we got a lot of work to do in that area which is obvious to everybody.” 

The offense is in the bottom 10 in the country now. [Lions entered ranked 110 of 127 FBS teams] What is your evaluation of [offensive coordinator] John Donovan and are you confident him and this offense can get this thing turned around?

Franklin: “Just what I just said. We’ve got a long ways to go. I’m not happy with where we’re at.”

Thoughts on the receivers struggling to get separation against Army:

Franklin: “We gotta be better. We gotta be better in all those areas there’s no doubt about it. I think we’ve got to throw the ball consistently and take more shots to give those guys opportunities, whether they’re getting separation or not I’ll check the film to see that. But you look at Godwin he’s coming down with contested catches and making it with people on his back, so whether you get separation and run away from people, or whether you catch contested catches the most important thing is when you have an opportunity to make a play you make it. It’s great to see Mike Gesicki get involved , we got to continue growing there.”

You said you’d be more involved with the offense after the Temple game. Have you been that involved in the last three games, if not will you be getting more involved for next week’s game?

Franklin: “Yeah, I’ve been more involved. Yes.”

Q: Any of the kids who didn’t play today could they have played with better weather conditions?

A: Franklin: “I think it depends who you talk to. If you talk to the kids, yes. Talk to the trainer, no. They weren’t ready to play this week it wasn’t like we were holding anybody for anything. They weren’t able to go this week so hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to get the guys back. The kids always say that. You ask the guys, ‘You ready to play?’ ‘Oh yeah, I can play coach. I can do it. Talk to the trainer, ‘No, no you can’t.’ We’re always going to put the safeties of our players first to make sure they’re taken care of and we’ve got really sharp, trained professionals that are able to do that.”

Q: This is a big picture-question. After the Temple loss you seemed to have a pretty good feel for maybe how frustrating that might be for the fan base. This was a four-touchdown point spread, expectations from you fan base aren’t 20-14 wins over Army. I know you’re being positive and everything, but what would you tell your fan base after a game like this where weather and injuries aside, you come out and really struggle and almost lose as a four-touchdown favorite?

A: Franklin: “Okay. First of all I have no concerns about point spreads. I couldn’t tell you what they are. I don’t know a coach in the country that does, so I’m going to come in here every single week and be positive even if it kills you guys and you want me to be negative.

I love our players, I love our school, I love our colors, love Penn State, love Happy Valley, love our community. Do we need to get better? Yes. But you guys can ask me every question in the book and try to get me to be negative and I’m not going to do it. I’m not gonna do it. Love our guys, love our staff, love the opportunity that we have here—gotta get better! I know it, you know it, the fans know it.

Point spreads and all those things I don’t even understand them. I lost $20 in Atlantic City when I was like 24 years old after college and I almost threw up. That was the last time I gambled. I couldn’t tell you anything about it.

I’m worried about making sure our guys go to school, get an education, make great choices I the community and find a way to win games. That’s what we’re going to do. We won today. We’re 1-0. We’re 1-0 and we’re going to do everything in our power to be 1-0 next week and I’m going to come in here and I’m going to be positive. I’m going to be positive and I’m not going to go down that road with anybody. Love our players, love our coaches, love our media, love everybody. Love everybody.”

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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Penn State practice notes: In, out and a QB comparison

By Audrey Snyder/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 6 days ago

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Running backs Akeel Lynch and Saquon Barkley were not present at the 10-minute portion of Wednesday’s practice that was open to the media.

Their usual backups, redshirt freshmen Mark Allen and Nick Scott who came in to play in the second half against San Diego State when both Lynch and Barkley were sidelined with injuries, took reps with the offense. James Franklin said last week that players don’t necessarily need to be available in practice all week in order to play, but does that extend to freshmen who are still acclimating to the offense?

“Each situation is unique and different,” Franklin said following Wednesday’s practice. “Obviously if you’re a senior and you’ve played a lot of football and you haven’t practiced much that week you can play. As a freshman it’s much harder to do that.”

Franklin, who keeps injuries close to the vest, said that redshirt freshman running back Johnathan Thomas, who dressed for the first time this season last Saturday, is the team’s No. 3 running back. Franklin then quickly back peddled and said “I probably shouldn’t say No. 3, he’s one of three backs that we plan on evaluating this week and then seeing who is going to give us the best option on Saturday.”

Franklin added that Penn State “still has the opportunity” to maybe get Barkley and Lynch back Saturday for the noon kick against Army. Lynch wasn’t able to put much weight on his left leg as he exited the field Saturday with the help of trainers and Barkley jogged on the sideline after landing awkwardly on his right ankle.

While the offense worked on the near side of the field the defense was on the far side, both starting safeties Marcus Allen and Jordan Lucas were participants. Allen exited Saturday’s game and returned to the sideline with his right arm in a sling. Lucas, the team’s most experienced starter on defense, didn’t dress for the game. Lucas practiced Wednesday with his right shoulder heavily taped.

Left tackle Andrew Nelson who has yet to play since sustaining a knee injury against Buffalo also was not at practice.

Defensive tackle Anthony Zettel was at practice after returning home to Michigan following Saturday’s game for a memorial service for his father who passed away last Friday. Franklin, defensive line coach Sean Spencer and some of Zettel’s closest teammates attended the memorial.

Does Hackenberg have similarities to NFL great Troy Aikman or FXFL QB Josh Freeman?

ESPN NFL Analyst Trent Dilfer said Wednesday on ESPN that QB Christian Hackenberg has similarities to Troy Aikman and that Hackenberg’s situation at Penn State, which Dilfer said “is not a good situation,” is part of the quarterback’s problem this season. Dilfer said scouts and NFL general managers will still drool over the Penn State junior, despite his numbers this season.

“It’s our job to play well,” Franklin said Wednesday when asked about Dilfer’s comments. “We’ve got to play well. … I’m worried about the people in our locker room and the people in our building.”

Is there any quarterback that Hackenberg reminds Franklin of?

“Me having an opinion about a guy I watched on TV 14 times in my life and not at practice every single day or coaching in the locker room it’s hard for me to get into those things,” he said. “Troy Aikman is awesome.”

Franklin then said that Josh Freeman, who he had as a recruit and then as a freshman and as a sophomore at Kansas State, had similar arm strength to Hackenberg. Freeman threw six touchdowns to 15 interceptions as a freshman, completing 51.9 percent of his passes. As a sophomore he threw for 3,353 yards and 18 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, before wrapping up his collegiate career as a junior with 20 touchdowns to eight interceptions, plus another 14 rushing touchdowns.

Freeman was selected in the first round (17th overall) of the 2009 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After bouncing around the league with stints with the Bucs, Vikings, Giants and Dolphins Freeman signed with the Fall Experimental Football League (FXFL) where he will play this season with the Brooklyn Bolts.

Audrey Snyder: and Twitter @audsnyder4.

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