James Franklin Stays Positive Despite .500 Record

James Franklin is an optimistic guy, and he’d be the first to tell you that.

By kickoff Saturday, his football team won’t have won a game in 49 days. It will have lost four in a row, the latter three of which were one-possession heartbreakers that came down to the final few drives. His offense hosts the nation’s fourth-worst rushing attack, an exhausted offensive line, and a visibly frustrated quarterback.

Still, at least on the surface, he remains steadfastly positive. For instance, the first-year coach began his weekly Tuesday press conference by stating that he was in a great mood, and commented on the “wonderful” weather.

As the Nittany Lions prepare for Indiana, their squandering of a late fourth-quarter lead to Big Ten newcomer Maryland hands over their heads. It was a game that featured only 219 total yards for Penn State, four turnovers, and, aside from Sam Ficken’s four field goals on as many attempts, very little sources of inspiration.

“We are in a great mood,” said Franklin. “We’ve got a tremendous opportunity. Myself, the staff, and the players are more determined and more optimistic than we’ve ever been.”

Franklin pointed to a number of developments that all suggested things were naturally moving in the right direction.

He said he and struggling quarterback Christian Hackenberg had a “really good meeting,” in which they discussed “a wide variety of topics.” He suggested that Ryan Keiser, who is sidelined for the year, “is doing great,” according to the Keiser family. He praised true freshman Andrew Nelson, who has been playing offensive tackle during Donovan Smith’s injury, saying he has “been really doing some great things.” And he even included, with the addition of freshman safety Troy Apke, “our three fastest guys now are all playing for us.”

That’s all good news. But beneath the surface, Franklin has pointed to several areas that suggest the Penn State football team may not be as optimistic as it appears.

In regards to Hackenberg and the offensive line, Franklin admitted that, with Hackenberg, “there is some frustration that is showing at times.” As it should be: He’s thrown five interceptions and only three touchdowns in this losing streak that has spanned over six weeks. “He’s an animated guy and he’s passionate about what we’re doing here at Penn State,” said Franklin. “But that has been something that we’ve discussed.”

During this losing skid, Franklin has consistently said the offensive line is making significant progress. Penn State has only cracked 50 rushing yards twice during the four game slide — those came in the first two games. The last two? Sixteen yards against Ohio State, and 42 against Maryland on 41 carries.

The loss of Smith doesn’t help, and Franklin has been hesitant to say when he’ll return, citing that decision is up to Smith’s doctors. Before the Maryland game, Franklin hinted that Dieffenbach would return. Guard Miles Dieffenbach didn’t even dress for Maryland, and it doesn’t seem that much has changed this week.

The offensive line situation doesn’t appear to be improving, and with all of the shifting around due to injuries, well, “that becomes a challenge,” said Franklin.

There are also a host of special teams issues that continue to plague the Nittany Lions. Franklin said that, for at least the second week in a row, he’ll hold an “open competition” between punters Chris Gulla and Daniel Pasquariello to determine who will start against Indiana. Pasquariello started against Maryland. Gulla started the week prior against Ohio State. Both rank outside of the top 150 punters in the nation in average yardage.

We’ve got two freshmen punters,” said Franklin, in summarizing the issues. “They’re figuring it out. They were really consistent and confident at the end of camp. Didn’t have some success early on, and haven’t really been able to bounce back from it yet.”

It’s clear, even from Franklin’s mouth, that a number of issues plague the Nittany Lions.

It will take more than optimism for Franklin and his team to march into Bloomington and beat the Hoosiers this Saturday.

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Ben Berkman

State College, PA

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