Clean-up crew: Penn State has long list of improvements before facing Pitt

By Derek Levarse - [email protected]
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Saturday night brought a sense of relief. Sunday brought a dose of reality.

The film wasn’t terribly kind to the Nittany Lions in the wake of their great escape from Appalachian State in their season opener. Of all the issues Penn State identified, one was most prominent.

“It doesn’t take 23 years coaching experience to say we didn’t tackle well,” Lions coach James Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “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?”

Though the offense had some early hiccups, the unit did finish regulation north of 400 yards and at 35 points before finishing at 434 and 42, respectively.

Heading into Saturday’s primetime showdown with Pitt, the Lions are most concerned about the defense, which had to replace nine starters from December’s Fiesta Bowl victory.

“I thought we had some guys that just weren’t playing fast,” Franklin said. “We weren’t triggering off the ball up front the way I think we’re capable of. We weren’t in great alignments sometimes. We weren’t getting hands on receivers.”

Even some guys with starting experience needed a little extra time.

Take dependable cornerback John Reid, who sat out all of 2017 with a knee injury. Playing for the first time since the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2016 season, Reid struggled to reach his usual standards and was ultimately not on the field toward the end of the game, including the decisive series in overtime.

“John played like a guy that hadn’t played for a year,” Franklin said. “Did some things really good, but did some things where he was a little bit inconsistent. … I think there was a little bit of rust on him. We were able to chip some of that rust off, and I think John’s going to have a huge year for us.”

Givens not a given

Franklin acknowledged Saturday that his defense greatly missed top defensive tackle Kevin Givens, who was suspended for the scare against the Mountaineers for an undisclosed violation of team rules.

Asked Tuesday if the junior will suit up in the middle against Pitt — the school he was originally committed to before signing with Penn State — Franklin replied, “Yeah, I hope so.”

It’s a specific phrasing that Franklin has used often in the past, albeit usually with injured players, as to not guarantee anything.

Without him, the Lions started redshirt freshman Fred Hansard next to Robert Windsor, though Ellison Jordan got just as many, if not more, reps over the course of the game. Antonio Shelton and true freshman PJ Mustipher also saw time at tackle.

“I think Fred did some good things but played like a guy that started his first game,” Franklin said. “I think that showed up. Ellison showed some flashes. … Antonio Shelton got, I don’t think there’s any doubt, probably the most reps of his career. And he’ll learn from that and he’ll grow there. And then PJ Mustipher is your unusual true freshman playing defensive tackle, and again, did some good things. But also did some things that you would probably expect from a first-time freshman starting in a game in front of 105,000.

“As we all know, that was a big question mark going into the season, and they’re going to need to take a big step, and we’re going to need to take a big step from week one to week two.”

Poll position

The Lions’ performance Saturday didn’t cost them as much as it could have in the rankings.

AP voters docked Penn State three spots, dropping the Lions to No. 13 in the latest poll, released Tuesday afternoon. The coaches were a bit kinder earlier in the day, as their poll still had Penn State at No. 10, down only one spot from the preseason.

Four of the Lions’ future Big Ten opponents are all ranked. In the AP poll, the pecking order is Ohio State (No. 4), Wisconsin (No. 5), Michigan State (No. 15) and Michigan (No. 21). The coaches have it as Ohio State (No. 4), Wisconsin (No. 6), Michigan State (No. 13) and Michigan (No. 22).

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By Derek Levarse

[email protected]

UP NEXT

No. 13 Penn State at Pitt

8 p.m., Saturday, ABC

Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse

Reach Derek Levarse at 570-991-6396 or on Twitter @TLdlevarse