Penn State Looks to Reset During Bye

Coming off a tough home loss to Northwestern, the Nittany Lions have an off week to work on correcting everything that went wrong.

While it is not an apples-to-apples comparison, understand that Penn State coach James Franklin found the bye week to be fruitful at his previous stop.

He can only hope the same is true now, with the Nittany Lions coming off their first loss in five games on his watch, a 29-6 home defeat to Northwestern, and idle Saturday. They resume their season on Oct. 11 at Michigan.

“The bye week came at a good time for us,” he said on the Big Ten conference call Tuesday afternoon. “With our lack of depth at some positions we're banged up. This is coming at a great time for us.”

The Lions practiced Sunday, and plan to do the same Tuesday and Wednesday. The coaches will then hit the road to recruit, and the players will be off until Sunday, when normal game-week preparations resume.

Franklin said the accent will be on recovery and refinement this week -- recovery for those players with nagging physical issues, and refinement for everyone, especially the younger players. There will be walk-throughs and jog-throughs, an emphasis on improving footwork and fundamentals.

“I don't think there's any doubt you'd love to go out and go full speed and bang, but we just can't afford to do that,” he said, a reference to a roster thinned by NCAA sanctions.

The idea is to make corrections, to get everyone as fresh as possible for the meeting with the Wolverines.

If Franklin's past is any guide, there is reason for optimism. In three years at Vanderbilt his teams went 7-7 before the bye (or in the case of 2013, the first bye, as the Commodores, like the Lions this year, had two). They went 17-8 afterward.

The split was even more striking his last two years in Nashville. Pre-bye No. 1, the Commodores were 4-6. Afterward they were 14-2, winning their last seven games in 2012 and their last five in '13, including bowl victories each season.

They also went 3-0 in games immediately following the bye the last two seasons, reeling off the day's last 17 points to beat No. 15 Georgia last Oct. 19, 31-27, Vanderbilt's first victory over a Top 25 team under Franklin, and earning the Commodores' first victory at Florida since 1945 after their second bye, that coming by a 34-17 count on Nov. 9.

Vandy also nipped Missouri 19-15 following its bye in 2012.

Granted, that Missouri team was seeking its first SEC victory and reeling from some drug-related suspensions in the week leading up to the game. But understand that Vanderbilt lost its last game before its open date that year to Georgia, 48-3, putting that team, 1-3 at that point, in a position even more precarious than the one facing Franklin's current club.

He allowed Tuesday that there are some similarities between how he and his staff (most of which followed him from Vandy to Happy Valley) dealt with the bye during their time with the Commodores, and how they are dealing with it now.

“I think one of the big things is, a lot of times in normal weeks and preparation you're rushing,” he said. “You're rushing to get the stuff corrected from the week before. You're rushing to get the new game plan installed. You're rushing to work on fundamentals and techniques that you need, and what happens is, you probably don't do a good enough job in any of those areas. The bye week allows you to do that, especially when you're a new staff and trying to install new things.”

At the same time, the Nittany Lions are in a unique situation, given their lack of depth. As an example Franklin noted that there is only one scholarship offensive tackle in the sophomore, junior and senior classes combined -- redshirt junior Donovan Smith.

“Some of these problems (on the team), you're not going to solve in a week,” Franklin said.

As a result, he said, “I think everything is different, and everything is magnified here.”

The tone for the week was set when the team gathered Sunday, the day after the loss to Northwestern. It was then, middle linebacker Mike Hull said, that everyone “kind of hit the reset button.”

“Our coaches said it perfectly in our team meeting on Sunday: 'How many teams go undefeated, every single year?' ” Hull said. “You're going to have some adversity during the season. It's how you respond to it.”

As Franklin put it, “We just went in and said, 'Hey guys, all of us could have done better, myself included. These are the things we've got to get corrected, moving forward.' I think if you handle this the right way, it could turn into a positive, because it forces you to deal with some of the issues that you have.”

“I think if you handle this the right way, it could turn into a positive, because it forces you to deal with some of the issues that you have.”

The issues are not new, as Franklin again emphasized. Once more he employed one of his go-to phrases, saying that winning minimizes problems, while losing maximizes them. And certainly that was the case against the Wildcats, as the Lions' patchwork offensive line -- one consisting of Smith and four guys who are first-time starters this season -- struggled.

PSU rushed for just 50 yards on 25 attempts, with 35 of those yards (on five attempts) coming in the game's last 7:22, after the issue was decided. Before that, the Lions managed just 15 yards on the ground, on 20 tries.

Penn State, now 112th among 125 major-college teams in rushing offense (101 yards a game), also allowed Christian Hackenberg to be sacked four times by the Wildcats. That raised the season total to a Big Ten-worst 14.

“It's not like a whole lot of things jumped out this Saturday that hadn't been there earlier in the year,” Franklin said again. “We've just got to have more of a sense of urgency getting them fixed. Some of them, you're not going to get fixed overnight.”

The defense generally played well last Saturday, though it struggled early against Northwestern's no-huddle, hurry-up offense. Twice the Wildcats drove for first-quarter touchdowns, and might have had another score had Hull not combined with cornerback Trevor Williams to thwart a fake field-goal attempt.

“I think we were just trying to get a feel for what they were doing, early on,” said Hull, who finished with a career-high 16 tackles. “I think after a couple series we settled down there, figured it out. I just think we need to be ready to play in the first quarter the next game. There's not much you can do. It's on us.”

Overall Hull said it was “a weird game,” noting that field position was “a hidden factor.” And certainly the Lions' balky offense put undue pressure on Hull and Co. PSU did not pick up a first down until the final play of the first quarter, did not score until Sam Ficken kicked a field goal with five seconds left in the half and did not manage anything the rest of the day beyond another Ficken field goal.

“We had been playing a certain way for four weeks,” Franklin said, “and had been kind of able to get by with it by just being gutsy and persevering and finding a way at the end of games. You can only do that for so long.”

It's worth pointing out that Franklin also had some serious concerns last year at Vanderbilt, losing starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels to a knee injury in that post-bye victory over Georgia.

Sophomore Patton Robinette led the comeback against the Bulldogs and started the next two games before giving way to Carta-Samuels the last three weeks of the regular season. Carta-Samuels then had season-ending surgery, and Robinette returned to the controls for a 41-24 victory over Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

It could also be argued that the better comparison to this PSU season is 2011, when Vanderbilt carried a 3-1 record into the bye, and immediately afterward was blasted 34-0 by an Alabama club bound for a national championship. Including that loss the Commodores went 3-6 after the bye that season, en route to a 6-7 finish (albeit with five defeats by a touchdown or less).

As is the case this year at Penn State, Franklin and his staff were in their first campaign, and just laying the foundation. As is also the case, the team got off to a surprisingly hot start.

It's entirely possible that reality will set in now, too. But at least the coaches have time to sort things out (as is also the case after that second bye, between the Michigan and Ohio State games). And it appears Franklin and Co. have used that time wisely in the past.

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