Adjustments Abound As Nittany Lions Battle Injuries And Poor Play
When James Franklin was asked last Thursday about Penn State’s midseason matchup against Ohio State, he provided a simple three-word answer: “Temple, Temple, Temple.”
It’s the same response he’s given every time he’s been asked about a later opponent; he’ll never speak about any team Penn State isn’t playing in the coming week. But in preparation for this Saturday’s tilt against lowly Buffalo, Franklin might be best suited repeating a different three word set: Adjustments, Adjustments, Adjustments.
“There is no doubt about it, we have to find a way to solve issues, solve problems,” Franklin confirmed Wednesday.
Defensively, where the Nittany Lions entered the season with the most confidence, Nyeem Wartman-White’s season-ending injury has sent the linebacker unit into a frenzy. Senior Gary Wooten is listed as the starting middle linebacker — the so-called “Mike” ‘backer position — though Jason Cabinda suggested he’s taken reps at the position as well.
“The most important thing with the Mike is getting everybody lined up, making sure everybody is on the same page,” he said Thursday. “Doing the same thing, it’s going to be critical.”
Cabinda played the middle linebacker position in high school, and according to various teammates, his vocal personality lends itself helpful in a role where communication is imperative to on-field success. In teleconferences, he’s articulate and convivial, and said he hopes to be an investment banker in part because of the money. He also said he’s watched hours of film with Wartman-White in the last week; but the nuances of the position don’t shine through in practice or in film — they instead require game experience.
“It’s a great opportunity, an opportunity to really step up as the leader of defense,” he said. “It’s not easy, you got to be a leader, you got to make calls. It’s not easy to do in front of a loud crowd in Beaver Stadium.”
For what it’s worth, Cabinda suggested that Wooten — who has only one career start under his belt — is naturally much quieter, but transforms into an audible leader on the field. Regardless, expect to see both start this week, and split reps at middle linebacker.
“It’s really upon the entire linebacker unit, the Mike makes all the calls, but it echoes throughout the entire linebacker unit,” Cabinda explained. “I think its upon the whole unit, and the safeties as well. It takes the whole defense to get squared away.”
And then there’s the offense line, the other unit facing a potential shakeup — though not due to injury. On Saturday, a game that’s been well published and seared into our collective memories, the front five allowed Christian Hackenberg to be sacked 10 times — one of which came after Temple’s defense sent just a two man rush. Junior college transfer Paris Palmer, who James Franklin hyped and entrusted with a starting spot, was burned consistently, and failed to seal the edge on numerous occasions.
Lucky, Andrew Nelson was the only offensive lineman available to the media this week to answer for his unit’s struggles. The sophomore tackle smartly took a page out of Franklin’s playbook, electing to brush over most questions about Temple with a simple “We’re just focusing on the next game.”
“A lot of work to be done in all areas, we all know where we want to go with this program,” he said. “The first game for us was a learning experience. That’s just the gameplan, moving on to the next game.”
Nelson confirmed that Saturday’s starting five is “for the most part” the starting five going forward, and suggested that while there has been talk of shifting personnel around, nothing has been finalized. Simply, he said they need to play better.
“I would say on Saturday from our standards, from how we’ve been playing in camp, we felt that we had a less than satisfactory grade,” he said. “We had a lot of good things, but we had a lot of mistakes. A lot of people don’t understand that sacks come from more than the offensive line a lot of the time.”
Speaking about Palmer, Nelson said he played like someone who had never played in a Division I game before, both a true statement and observation. Palmer is 6-foot-7 and more than 300 pounds. He has the trimmings of a star offensive lineman, but his footwork, speed, and confidence seemed crippled after the first few sacks. Nelson pulled Palmer aside during the game to tell him he was capable of protecting the quarterback.
Still, Nelson feels that change is around the corner.
“During camp our offense was night and day difference compared to last year, that’s still true. During camp I was so excited about how our offense was playing,” he said almost wistfully. “Obviously didn’t play nearly as well as we could have, but we’re still excited about where this team can go. Offensively we do feel like we’re very close.”
Close as they may be, the unit still has work to do. The offensive line, along with the linebacking corps, will answer these pressing questions on Saturday.