Ride the running game, James

Watching Penn State play against Temple two weeks ago was not a fun time for anyone. It wasn’t fun for Head Coach James Franklin; it wasn’t fun for Offensive Coordinator John Donovan; it wasn’t fun for running backs Akeel Lynch or Saquon Barkley and it certainly wasn’t fun for quarterback Christian Hackenberg.

Christian Hackenberg was sacked 10 times and threw more picks (1) than he did touchdowns (0). Temple Running Back Jahad Thomas rushed the ball 29 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Penn State Running Back Akeel Lynch (Jr.) ran the ball 10 times for 78 yards, however most of that production came from a 42-yard touchdown run. And Running Back Saquon Barkley only got one carry during the entire game and ran it for one measly yard.

Clearly James Franklin had some changes to make going into week two when Penn State would face the University of Buffalo. And changes he would make.

Penn State went to the running game against Buffalo, handing off the ball 39 times while throwing it only 27 times. This is a stark difference from week one against Temple, when the Nittany Lions ran the ball only 28 times and threw the ball 25 times. Big difference, right?

The real difference in week two, however, was whom Penn State was handing the ball off to. While Lynch (19 rushes for 46 yards vs. Buffalo) came into the season as the lead back, it was Barkley who really impressed. The true freshman running back had 12 rushes for 115 yards and a touchdown and gave the Nittany Lions the spark they needed to win their first game of the season.

Fast forward to this past Saturday night.

A night game at home, plus being the first conference matchup of the season made this game important enough as it is. The fact that Rutgers suspended so many of its players and its head coach put this game into must-win territory.

While Rutgers was severely undermanned, Penn State still needed to execute its game plan and carry over the positives from the game against Buffalo in order to earn its second win of the season.

James Franklin must have realized what he had in running back Saquon Barkley after his performance against Buffalo, as he fed the true freshman the ball 21 times for 195 yards and two touchdowns. Barkley, who initially had committed to Rutgers, changed his mind and picked Penn State as his home once James Franklin arrived in Happy Valley. Franklin is probably thanking the old gods and the new that Barkley picked the Nittany Lions over the Scarlet Knights, as the running back has run for over 300 yards in the last two games. Junior running back Akeel Lynch also ran the ball 10 times for 120 yards, which included a 75-yard touchdown run.

Clearly James Franklin has two very capable and explosive running backs, along with a talented yet struggling quarterback Christian Hackenberg (who hasn’t been sacked in two weeks by the way) and a dominant defense. These are the keys to Penn State’s two game winning streak.

Unlike against Temple, Hackenberg has had time in the pocket to throw and has only turned the ball over once, the running backs have rushed for 530 yards and the defense has only allowed 17 points.

This is how Penn State is going to win games. Run the ball. Don’t turn the ball over. Play good defense. Penn State is paying defensive coordinator Bob Shoop almost a million dollars a year to keep this defense as dominant as possible. A year and three games into his contract and he is keeping his end of the deal. Now its time for Franklin and Donovan to earn their contracts. Run the ball James. Run it.


New Season, Same Result For Nittany Lions

It has been over 250 days since James Franklin led the Penn State Nittany Lions to victory over Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.

In front of a sold out crowd that was essentially a home game for the Nittany Lions, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was brilliant, going 34-of-50 for 371 yards and four TDs in a 31-30 overtime victory.

After the game Franklin addressed the remaining Penn State fans in the stands yelling, “You want to talk about culture? Look around, this is culture!” The crowd ate it up, exploding in a We Are Penn State chant.

It was an inspiring and powerful statement from the first year head coach, who was brought in to further improve upon the work that Bill O’Brien started the previous two seasons to turn this program around.

For the first time in three years, Penn State football looked like it was going in a positive direction.

Fast-forward to today and that feeling of positivity is all but extinguished.

Penn State fell to the Temple Owls for the first time in 74 years this past Saturday, losing 27-10. After the game the frustration amongst players, coaches and fans was palpable.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, I don’t need to tell you guys that. Its obvious to everybody,” said Franklin to the media after the game.

“We just need to [watch] the film, learn from it and were going to get ready for Buffalo,” a dejected Christian Hackenberg explained to the media after the loss. “I think we all need to look in the mirror and see what we can do better.”

Despite all of the heat that Franklin and Hackenberg will take leading up to Penn State’s home opener against Buffalo, neither deserve as much criticism as the Nittany Lion’s Offensive Coordinator John Donovan.

Donovan lacked creativity in his play calling and failed to make adjustments time and time again throughout Saturdays beat down.

The most glaring example of Donovan’s lack of creativity came at the end of the third quarter. With a 1:28 left, Hackenberg completed a short pass to the right side to Chris Godwin for eight yards. On second down Donovan dialed up the same playcall. This time however, Temple’s Sharif Finch easily recognized the play and picked off Hackenberg’s throw (which was going to the same spot). A play later, Temple scored and took a 17-10 lead, which they never gave up.

Donovan and Hackenberg’s miscues during that sequence were a microcosm of Penn State’s offense since Donovan took over the play calling last season.

In the fourteen games that Donovan has called the plays for Penn State, very little has changed. The wide receivers run short to intermediate routes that often make little sense given the situation and the run game has been non-existent (Don’t get me started on the endless screen passes either).

Don’t mistake this criticism as an angry Penn State fan using his blog to voice his dissatisfaction with how the team is playing. No, these are real concerns that people all over the country are agreeing upon.

And while Donovan been a disaster, James Franklin and the rest of his staff haven’t inspired confidence in their abilities either. Everyone knows how great a recruiter Franklin has been since he arrived at Penn State, but he has continuously failed to make in-game adjustments that ultimately cost his team the game.

Take this past weekend against Temple for example. After dominating the first quarter and taking a 10-0 lead, Temple’s head coach and former Nittany Lion, Matt Rhule, adjusted his defensive game plan. Rhule realized what everyone in the world already knew: Penn State can’t run the ball or protect the Quarterback, so drop everyone into coverage and dare them to move the ball down field. Franklin had no counter adjustment, and the offense fizzled for the rest of the game.

And then there is the offensive line. Christian Hackenberg was sacked 10 times on Saturday. To put that in perspective, he was sacked 44 times all of last season and after one game he is almost a quarter of the way there to surpassing that total.

This was supposed to be a group that would only improve after last season’s catastrophe. Instead, the offensive line took a step back in game one of the 2015 season. Hackenberg was constantly under duress in the pocket and while he is definitely responsible for some of the sacks that he took, he never had enough time in the pocket to allow his receivers to get down field and was sacked over and over again.

And that’s the heart of Penn States problem. They have a pocket passing Quarterback who excels throwing the ball down the field and utilizing his tight ends, and yet he only attempted two deep balls and targeted his tight ends only once.

Many believe that Christian Hackenberg can be the first overall pick in next year’s NFL draft. Unfortunately for him, he is playing in an offensive system that is not conducive to success given his skillset. And unless James Franklin, John Donovan and the offensive line figure it out not only will Hack not be a first round pick, but Penn State will struggle to reach the six win mark necessary to qualify for a bowl game.

After an offseason full of promise, 2015 has started off with more of the same from last year for James Franklin and Penn State. Its not too late for Franklin to make the necessary adjustments to put this team on the winning path, but he better start soon or else it will be more than just Donovan’s job that the fans and former players start calling for.