No quick fixes for Penn State’s struggling offense
Penn State coach James Franklin rattled off a series of statistical rankings Tuesday to shed light on the ways in which Michigan State’s defense has stifled opponents this season.
First in Division I-FBS in turnover margin. Third in turnovers gained and recovered fumbles. Eighth in total defense and rushing defense. Fifteenth in sacks.
The momentum-shifting defense of No. 10 Michigan State (9-2, 6-1) that awaits the Nittany Lions (6-5, 2-5) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium might daunt even the finest of Big Ten offenses. And Penn State falls far short of that, as it sits just a spot above the bottom among conference teams in scoring (20.6) and total yards per game (333.9).
Yet, with only a bowl game left after Saturday, Franklin dismissed the notion that these tough times call for desperate or even notably different measures.
“We’re always going to be really introspective and evaluate what we’re doing, and can we do things better, but we have a plan,” Franklin said. “We’re going to tweak the plan when we need to, but we’re going to stick to our plan.
“I think times like this are probably the most important for laying the foundation for the future.”
Through 11 games, Penn State’s offensive plan created productive moments but few complete performances.
The Nittany Lions opened the season as a pass-oriented attack. Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg averaged 315.3 yards per game through four starts, and wide receivers DaeSean Hamilton and Geno Lewis become buzzworthy talents. The run game contributed 113.8 yards per contest, with a 228-yard performance against Massachusetts skewing the average.
Then came the four-game losing streak in which Penn State failed to exceed 270 yards of offense each time.
Running back Akeel Lynch evolved into the go-to playmaker. He rushed for 137 of Penn State’s 265 total yards a week ago in a 16-14 loss to Illinois and gained 130 one game earlier.
He had 285 yards in the first nine games combined.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted (last week),” Lynch said, “but it just shows how close we are, and we just have to continue to keep working.”
The team’s movement toward run improvement coincided with a weaker passing attack.
In last week’s loss, Hackenberg finished with 93 yards, his lowest total in 23 starts.
Franklin considers the pieces around Hackenberg as much if not more accountable for the dropoff.
Penn State’s offensive line, which the coach praised for its improvement from the opener until now, remains a source of problems, particularly because opponents learned in the past month-plus about the front’s vulnerability to blitzing.
“We’re seeing, on average, about a 20 percent increase with each team we play in terms of the amount of blitzing and twisting (compared to) what they typically do,” Franklin said. “I think the understanding of what we’re trying to do (with the line) and why has improved. It’s the consistency and the execution that we haven’t been able to do. And the moving parts that we’ve had on the offensive line have magnified it.”
Junior cornerback Jordan Lucas, plenty familiar with the abilities of Penn State’s passing game from practicing against it, expressed optimism in Hackenberg and the wide receivers as they head into the regular-season finale against an opponent that often puts its cornerbacks in one-on-one situations and uses safeties for run support.
“It’s just like anything this team has been through before,” Lucas said. “Last game wasn’t our strongest game. But we have one more opportunity to play at home, and we’re just going to try to bounce back.”