Penn State notebook: Franklin defends offensive system
With the Penn State offense sputtering along at 13th in the Big Ten in scoring and with heralded quarterback Christian Hackenberg appearing to regress during a sophomore slump season, the scheme of offensive coordinator John Donovan has come under fire by some.
After all, the Nittany Lions had the Big Ten’s No. 4 offense in 2013, when Hackenberg was the conference’s freshman of the year under former coach/offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
Hackenberg’s passing efficiency rating has dropped 25 points this season (to 109.3, 103rd in the country), and Hackenberg has publicly pointed to the adjustment he’s faced in the difference between the O’Brien and Donovan systems.
Penn State coach James Franklin doesn’t see it that way.
“I know people probably don’t agree with this, but a lot of the schemes and a lot of the things that we’re doing are similar (to what O’Brien did),” Franklin said. “People can have different opinions on that, but I’ve watched the film and I’ve studied it.
“Is there a little different way of doing it? Is there knowing when to call certain things? Is there playing to our strengths a little bit? Yeah. (And) I don’t think there is any doubt that we all could be doing a better job, including myself. But I don’t think (an entirely new scheme) is the situation that we’re in. You’ve seen places where a new head coach comes in, and he’s going to force his system in, no matter what. I don’t see us doing that.”
Hackenberg last month told Sports Illustrated: “Coach Franklin’s system is more of a college system. Coach O’Brien’s system was upper-level, as pro as they get.”
Recruit a ‘top-notch guy’
Penn State’s newest 2015 verbal commitment, quarterback Tommy Stevens, accounted for 2,733 yards of offense over 11 games in leading Decatur Central High School to the sectional finals in Indiana’s 5-A classification this season.
Stevens was 126 of 212 for 1,891 yards, 16 touchdowns and 6 interceptions and was his team’s leading rusher with 842 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“He’s an unbelievable just football player, in general,” Decatur Central coach Justin Dixson said. “You look at him — he’s dynamic with the ball, a physical blocker and tackler, he can throw it, he can run it, he can kick it.
“He’s a coach’s kid … a football junkie. He’s grown up around the game of football and has a legit passion for it and just plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”
Stevens played defense late in the season as the stakes rose. Dixson said he played every snap on both sides during a playoff game.
“That also tells you what type of gritty competitor he is,” Dixson said. “And he’s doing it at a high level. … I never thought I would coach a player that loves the game of football more than I do — and he might be close.
“He’s a top-notch guy, and we are going miss him.”
Shift in punt philosophy
Penn State on Saturday had its best punting performance since its four-game losing streak began in September. A shift in philosophy helped produce it.
“We’ve gone away from kicking to specific areas of the field, and just say, ‘Kick it as far as you possibly can anywhere within the 53 1⁄3 yards of the field, and put the pressure on the coverage guys,” Franklin said.
Franklin and his staff believe in directional punting because the sideline can act as an extra defender and because they would prefer not to give an opponents’ arguably most dynamic player his best chance for a return.
“But right now where we’re at from an experience standpoint at the punter position, let’s put the pressure on (the coverage unit) and allow (the punter) to go whack it,” Franklin said. “So I think that’s helped.”
Franklin said the adjustment was made at halftime of a recent game. He added that, once PSU’s young punters gain confidence, he’d prefer to return to a directional strategy “because I think that’s in our best interest longer.”
Freshman Daniel Pasquariello has taken over for Chris Gulla as the exclusive punter the past two games. His 37.3 average against Indiana on Saturday was the best PSU average for a game since Sept. 20 against Massachusetts. Of his nine punts, five resulted in possessions inside the IU 20 after the Lions managed just 13 such punts in prior eight games all season.
The Hoosiers netted minus-15 yards on the three punts they returned.