Nittany Lions hunting for physical edge up front against Rutgers

By Derek Levarse - [email protected] | November 9th, 2017 6:57 pm

Penn State Athletics


Rutgers at Penn State

Noon, Saturday, BTN

He was talking about the pass rush at the time. But it could have applied to any number of topics on James Franklin’s mind.

“It’s not one specific issue,” the Penn State coach said. “It’s not one specific concern. It’s a lot of things.”

Following the Nittany Lions’ second straight loss on Saturday, Franklin made a few pointed statements about what his team needed to improve on after falling out of the College Football Playoff picture.

Chief among them was his belief that the Lions needed to become more “hard-nosed” and physical at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

As he reiterated this week, however, there isn’t exactly a quick fix for that.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to keep stressing it on both sides of the ball. We’ve got some injuries that have factored into that as well. But we need to be able to create space on offense and we need to be more physical and strike our keys, and (win) one-on-one matchups defensively.

“So its not something that’s going to change overnight. We have done some really, really good things this year. But we need to do it more consistently, and we need to do it in every circumstance — at home, on the road, ranked opponent, non-ranked opponent, conference game, non-conference game — (we) need to be more consistent with everything we do.”

Penn State will look to take the first step toward that on Saturday against an improved Rutgers team that needs to win two of its last three to become bowl-eligible.

On offense, Franklin was careful not to single out the offensive line alone for the Lions’ woes in the running game, adding that blocking by tight ends and receivers is just as important.

Still, the linemen are taking their coach’s words to heart.

“I think it’s a huge challenge not only for me, but for the rest of the offensive line,” sophomore guard Steven Gonzalez said. “And I think that’s the real emphasis this week to try to improve that. And that’s what we do every week — to try to improve our physicality.

“So I think that will be our mindset this week, and just try to be as physical as we can against Rutgers.”

A big game for Saquon Barkley — who has been the country’s top all-purpose threat but has topped 100 rushing yards just three times in nine games — would be a good start.

But the question becomes how does a team work on getting tougher during the week?

”It’s a combination of how we practice. It’s a combination of mentality. It’s a combination of development. It’s a combination of recruiting, of scheme,” Franklin said. “It’s all those things. That’s a challenge, especially when you face really good fronts.”

Indeed, the Big Ten is home to some of the top run defenses in the country.

Penn State’s last four opponents — Northwestern (12th), Michigan (seventh), Ohio State (18th) and Michigan State (third) — all rank in the top 20 nationally against the run.

The final three foes all check in considerably lower with Rutgers at 86th, Nebraska at 81st and Maryland at 77th. So the opportunity will be there.

“It’s just our mindset and the way we approach practice,” Gonzalez said. “I think we just have to approach practice for the rest of the week and the rest of the season with more of a finishing mindset. Trying to finish every play, don’t stop until the whistle.”

Franklin would like to see the same attitude on the defensive side of the ball.

While the Lions’ front did a better job of pressuring the quarterback against Michigan State compared to Ohio State — the Buckeyes’ J.T. Barrett practically sat in a rocking chair in the pocket in the second half — defenders still struggled to bring their man down.

Brian Lewerke was able to consistently scramble out of sacks and extend plays long enough to find the open man, finishing with 400 yards passing in the Spartans’ 27-24 victory.

Franklin said after the game that the outcome was generally the same whether the Lions were rushing four or blitzing and sending five or six.

”I think we could play a little bit more aggressive,” Franklin said Tuesday. “I think we could play a little bit more reckless. I think sometimes we go to blitz and we see the offense fan out to pick up the blitz. And we don’t attack it as hard as we should attack it.

“I think there’s some things that we can do scheme-wise. I think there’s some things fundamental-wise and technique-wise, it’s all those things. It’s getting some of our injured players back. I think it’s all of those. It’s not one specific issue or one specific reason. If it was, that would be an easy solution. We would attack that. But it’s a combination of all of those things.”

Barkley a finalist

Even when his rushing numbers have stagnated, Barkley has shined as a receiver and a return man for the Lions. It’s that all-around play that has made him a finalist for the Pail Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player.

Barkley is one of four finalists for the honor, including Washington’s Dante Pettis, N.C. State’s Nyheim Heins and Iowa State’s Joel Lanning.

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley hasn’t had much room to run lately, and coach James Franklin is looking for a more physical effort from his offensive line. State’s Saquon Barkley hasn’t had much room to run lately, and coach James Franklin is looking for a more physical effort from his offensive line. Carlos Osorio | AP photo

By Derek Levarse

[email protected]


Rutgers at Penn State

Noon, Saturday, BTN

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

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