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Ball Security Suffers In Penn State’s Rainy Northwestern Matchup

Penn State may have beat Northwestern, but the 17-7 victory was anything but pretty.

Through their first four games, the Nittany Lions had just one turnover on the year – an interception against Purdue in week one. The team had five on Saturday, including four fumbles from the running back room.

Every running back fumbled at least once. Freshman Nick Singleton gave away possession twice, while Keyvone Lee and Kaytron Allen each logged a turnover of their own.

On the sideline, head coach James Franklin was openly furious about the fumble issues. Franklin’s frustration continued into his postgame press conference.

“The things that I’m coming in here about, and I’m always so proud about, and how we play situational football, and pound my chest about, we didn’t do a good job with those today,” Franklin said.

Despite Manny Diaz’s defense forcing four turnovers and 11 sub-two minute drives, Penn State lost the turnover battle and produced nine sub-two minute drives of its own. The Nittany Lions were oftentimes inefficient at controlling possession of the ball.

Quarterback Sean Clifford completed just 10 of his 20 passes and threw a terrible first-quarter interception. Penn State’s pass catchers were inconsistent reeling the ball in as well, including a wide open drop from Lee on a second-quarter check down.

With a constant downpour of rain impacting the game’s conditions, some problems were expected, but certainly not to the level displayed. Franklin was less accommodating of the weather-based explanation.

“I’m never going to allow the weather to be an excuse,” Franklin said. “It doesn’t matter. We have got to protect the football.”

Players had different personal approaches to their preparation for the weather. Because of the rain, most of the offense’s skill players chose not to wear gloves. Notably, the team’s leading receiver Parker Washington was a member of that camp.

“It started pouring a little too hard,” Washington said, after the game. “We was like ‘let’s just take the gloves off.’ We trust our hands.”

Although the receivers and running backs were largely gloveless, the tight ends opted to wear theirs.

“It’s an individual decision,” tight end Brenton Strange said. “I’ve always played with my gloves on. I like it because it protects my hands a bit more in the blocking.”

Though many of the players spoke about the weather’s impact, Franklin maintained the rain was not the primary factor behind his team’s ball security issues.

“We didn’t handle it well,” Franklin said. “The weather will never be an excuse for us. We obviously need to continue working there.”

Franklin noted the team doesn’t practice indoors when it rains, instead using the unforgiving environment to expose players to higher-pressure reps. Penn State explicitly prepared for Saturday’s rainy conditions, but the result did not show on the field, leading Franklin to say the team will continue those drills over the next two weeks.

In response to the team’s fumbling, Franklin rotated the running backs less than usual. Call it what you want – punitive or risk-averse – but the team was unafraid to bench players who made mistakes.

When Singleton lost his second fumble, Lee took over, despite not logging a snap in the previous week’s game against Central Michigan. When Lee had his fumble, Allen stepped on the field, even after spending the first half on the sidelines for unspecified reasons.

The trio of running backs struggled and, based on Singleton’s dejected body language, they knew it. Still, it feels rash to use Saturday’s performance to define a room that hadn’t yet fumbled in 2022.

Possession concerns aside, the running backs entered an otherwise encouraging performance.

All averaging around four yards per carry, the three Nittany Lions combined for 207 yards. Singleton also scored his fifth touchdown on the season, refusing to be denied at the goal line.

Singleton and Allen have been lauded this season for their explosive ability. Together, they had five rushes of 10+ yards and more that looked a step away from breaking out.

Even Lee, who has seen his fair share of criticism for a perceived lack of burst, broke a pair of big rushes that picked up 10 yards apiece and outran pursuant defenders.

As Penn State enters its remaining slate of exclusively Big Ten games, its run game will likely be the offense’s strength. Cognizant of that point, the running backs must find a lesson in Saturday’s struggles and be more diligent with fundamentals.

Conditions will not always be ideal. Defenders will not always be slower. Opponents will not always fall susceptible to the Nittany Lions’ defense or fail to take advantage of takeaway opportunities.

Sometimes coachspeak has legs. The unit has to execute better in the future or else Penn State runs a real risk of collapsing down the stretch.

There are always things to work on – especially in a conference division with two top 10 teams – but even with all the imperfections, Franklin was pleased to exit with a win.

“We have done what we needed to do to this point,” Franklin said. “Winning’s hard, whether it’s in conference or out of conference.”

Cleaning up avoidable errors is definitely a priority, but there’s also tangible value in being able to overcome self-inflicted wounds.

“I’d love for them all to be pretty wins and sexy wins,” Franklin said. “But that’s not the game we play.”

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About the Author

Sam Fremin

Sam is a senior from Ashburn, Virginia, majoring in journalism and political science & minoring in German and creative writing. He is a Dallas Cowboys fan who relishes the misery of Eagles fans. All hate messages can be sent to [email protected] or @SamFremin on Twitter.

He may or may not read every single comment he gets.

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