James Franklin believes that if a team is playing well in two of football’s three phases – offense, defense and special teams – then it’s on its way to a pretty good season.
But when that team is playing well in all three phases, which is what Penn State has been doing in building a 6-0 record (3-0 Big Ten) and a No. 3 national ranking in the first half of 2017, then you have something really special.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, 23 years at every level including NFL, and I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere where all three sides of the ball were playing at such a high level,” Franklin said Tuesday in an interview with national radio host Jim Rome.
“Right now, all three phases are playing at a really high level and our kids are playing with a lot of confidence. A confident team is a dangerous team and we’re going to need it because we’re going through a tough stretch right now.”
The Nittany Lions are taking a well-deserved rest before hitting the most brutal portion of their schedule, games on consecutive Saturdays against three Big Ten East foes – at home Oct. 21 versus No. 17 Michigan, Oct. 28 at No. 9 Ohio State and Nov. 4 at No. 21 Michigan State. These contests are vital to their hopes of repeating as conference champions and reaching the College Football Playoff.
Statistically, the Lions have built a nice foundation. The offense, led by Heisman Trophy contender Saquon Barkley and heady quarterback Trace McSorley, has performed as advertised. Barkley is second in the nation in all-purpose yards at 217 per game, has scored touchdowns rushing, receiving and returning, and has thrown a touchdown pass.
McSorley leads the Big Ten in passing yards (266.2 yards per game) and is second in total offense (295.8 yards per game). He has completed 67 percent of his passes for 1,597 yards and 13 touchdowns, with only four interceptions.
The defense, which features seven senior starters, has exceeded expectations. The unit leads the nation in points allowed at 9.0 per game while yielding just 285 yards per game (12th). The Lions also are tied for first in FBS with 17 takeaways, and in turnover margin at plus-12.
Special teams have returned a kickoff (Barkley) and a punt (DeAndre Thompkins) for touchdowns. The Nittany Lions are first in the Big Ten in net punting, kickoff returns and kickoff coverage, and second in punt returns.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Franklin said, “but we’ve still got a long way to go in a lot of different areas, and we’re making tremendous progress.”
There are some problem areas. Senior Tyler Davis, who entered this season 30 of 32 on field goals in his career, has made just six of 13 attempts, but Franklin appears confident he will turn it around.
The offensive line has yet to settle into a rhythm in the running game as opposing defenses devise special game plans to contain Barkley. The unit also has allowed nine sacks in the last two games and there is an unsettled situation at right tackle, where redshirt junior Chasz Wright and fifth-year senior Andrew Nelson have missed time with injuries.
The Lions continue to struggle on third down, converting less than 38 percent of their tries, ninth in the Big Ten. They have allowed 8.3 tackles for loss per game, and only six teams in FBS allow more.
For Franklin and his staff, this is a week to get everything cleaned up. He said preparations began Tuesday for Michigan, and then it’s the proverbial one game at a time to get through the next three.
The luck of the draw with the schedule made Franklin laugh on Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches call.
“They love us. They love us with that schedule, there’s no doubt,” he said.
“We got to the bye week in a good situation from a health perspective, from a wins perspective. We’ve got to take advantage of this week and then find a way to go out and play with confidence here at home next week against Michigan.”