Jesse James and Co. Focus on Execution

The Penn State tight end is confident the team’s struggling ground game will get moving if the Nittany Lions stick to their game plans.

Winning, Penn State coach James Franklin has said, minimizes problems, while losing magnifies them. The issues are still there, but aren't as noticeable.

The Nittany Lions are 3-0 heading into Saturday's home date with 0-3 Massachusetts, so their biggest offensive issue -- an inability to run the ball -- remains in the background.

It will surely come to the fore when the weather turns and the opponents get tougher, but not just yet. To date they have been rescued by two last-second drives orchestrated by Christian Hackenberg -- an eight-play, 55-yarder for the winning field goal in the opener against UCF, and a six-play, 80-yarder culminating in Bill Belton's five-yard touchdown run with 1:13 left last week at Rutgers.

So the bottom line looks fine. The fact that the running game is a running joke -- the Lions are averaging 75.7 yards a game on the ground, 117th among 125 Division I teams -- doesn't matter. At least not yet.

Improving that aspect of the game would appear to be a matter of time, seeing as four of the five regulars on the offensive line had never started a game before this season.

“We just need to execute better,” tight end Jesse James said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “The coaches put us in the right places to make plays. Running the ball and everything, we just need to execute the game plan a little bit better. I think if we do that, the running game and the passing game will improve.”

James believes the linemen “keep getting better every week,” and said the tight ends' work with the line is ongoing.

“We need to work with each other as much as possible,” he said, “to get the running game going.”

The tight ends were a prominent part of the passing game under former coach Bill O'Brien, who used them creatively and often. If the early returns mean anything, they seem destined for more traditional duties under Franklin, for while James has 10 receptions to date -- third on the team, behind wide receivers DaeSean Hamilton (26) and Geno Lewis (20) -- Kyle Carter (5-57) has all but disappeared from the game plan. Freshman Mike Gesicki (3-27) has the only other receptions by a tight end.

James, who has 120 yards and two TDs through the air, was asked if he is required to block more this season.

“I wouldn't say more,” he said. “I blocked a lot last year. Whatever they ask me to do, I'm doing.”

James said Gesicki has “done a great job picking up the playbook,” that he learned “really fast” during preseason camp.

“His role could develop more from where he's at,” James said. “He needs to get a little bit more involved in the run game, and I think he'll do that. And he'll end up playing more for us.”

“Running the ball and everything, we just need to execute the game plan a little bit better. I think if we do that, the running game and the passing game will improve.”

Nor would it surprise James if redshirt sophomore Brent Wilkerson sees more time as the season unfolds, given the fact that Wilkerson has been “doing a great job in practices and all the drills and everything.”

Elsewhere, Hackenberg has been doing the best job of all, especially in the two-minute drill. That's how a team that can't run the ball and in fact doesn't score that much -- the Lions average 20 points a game, 106th in the country -- finds itself 3-0.

James called Hackenberg “a great leader” and “a great player,” and said the two-minute drill is a focal point in practice.

“It was a big point in the game, both times we had those,” he said. “Hack did a great job taking us down the field. Everyone executed. It's really execution.”

Execution on the fly, no less.

“Two-minute, you feel a sense of urgency,” James said. “You're going against the clock, so everything has to be a little bit faster. The tempo moves up a little bit. In that sense we're playing against the clock, too. That's a big part of it. Every drive is important to us. We've just been really effective in the two-minute drives.”

To date the Lions have scored 23 points in the fourth quarter, more than in any other period. They have 20 in the third and just 17 in the first half.

They would obviously prefer faster starts and more consistency, rather than depending on last-minute heroics. They would obviously prefer to pound the ball on the ground with more regularity.

But developing that phase of the game is clearly going to take some time.

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