Penn State coach James Franklin on the team's ground game.
In 1976, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach John McKay was asked about his struggling team's execution.
I'm in favor of it, he replied, in what went down as one of the greatest quotes in football history.
Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg is in favor of his team's execution, too, but not in the sense the late, great McKay meant all those years ago. In a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, the sophomore passer repeatedly stressed the need for improved offensive execution as the 4-1 Nittany Lions prepare to face 2-4 Michigan in the Big House this weekend.
PSU enters the game ranked next to last in the Big Ten and 113th in the nation in rushing offense (101.0 ypg). The Lions have also allowed the second-most sacks in the conference (14).
We just have to continue to trust in our play-calling and what we're doing and sticking to it, Hackenberg said. The coaches work extremely hard and we work extremely hard day in and day out. It comes down to us executing.
It's gonna be a process, he added. We're still working out the kinks, just like everyone else in the country.
Penn State is fresh off a bye week where it had a chance to smooth some of those kinks. Center Angelo Mangiro said that was especially important for the rebuilt offensive line, which features four first-year starters, including a guard (Brian Gaia) who played defensive tackle last season.
Head coach James Franklin and offensive line coach Herb Hand preached -- you guessed it -- execution during the bye week. The focus was on details, Mangiro said, like our hat placement and hand placement and doing the little techniques to get the results we want.
During his weekly press conference, Franklin said the Nittany Lions are committed to fielding a balanced offense, even though they've had much more success through the air than on the ground this season. PSU is second in the Big Ten in passing (306.8 ypg) and Hackenberg is second in the league with 295.4 passing yards per game.
When asked about kick-starting the running game, Franklin said, I wish it was that magic wand that you just kind of wave over people's heads but football doesn't work like that and life doesn't work like that.
So we are just going to stay positive and we're going to keep grinding through it, Franklin said. I think one of the things that we talked about over the bye week is we can't abandon the run game, and that's myself and that's the rest of the coaches. You get frustrated because you're not getting as much positive yardage as you want and you're trying to stay out of third and long. But we've got to commit to the running game and we've got to be patient.
Mangiro, who is one of the first-year O-line starters, was happy to hear his coach has not given up on the rushing attack. To the center, it showed a level of confidence in the front five.
It's important to us, he said. We want to get it going, too. It's something we've worked very hard on in the bye week to get improved. We just have to go out and do what we've been taught this week against Michigan.
It figures to be a formidable test. The Wolverine defense has had some serious breakdowns this year, including giving up 403 passing yards and three touchdowns to Rutgers QB Gary Nova last weekend. That's the same Nova who threw five interceptions in a loss to the Lions.
“I think one of the things that we talked about over the bye week is we can't abandon the run game, and that's myself and that's the rest of the coaches.”
But Michigan's defense has been strong against the run, allowing only 100.2 yards per game (2.9 yards per carry) and three rushing scores. Four of the Wolverines' six opponents have been held below 82 rushing yards and no foe has scored more than one rushing TD.
The key to moving the ball against U-M?
It just comes down to us being able to come out and execute, Hackenberg said. They're a great football team, they have a lot of talent. I know their record to outsiders' eyes may not seem that way. But this is still Michigan, they're coached very well and have a lot of players who can go out and make plays for them.
For us, we've just got to come out and execute and understand the challenge that's ahead of us, he added. We have to go out and execute the game plan and avoid the negative plays and make as many plays as we can.
The Lions will be well rested while trying to do so. In the week leading up to the bye, PSU practiced only three times, and the regulars were limited to walk-through or jog-through work. The entire team had off last Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
My body feels great, Mangiro said Wednesday. My legs felt great (at practice) yesterday. I had a hop in my step.
That hop was not there for the team the week before the bye, as the Lions looked lethargic in a 29-6 home loss to Northwestern. They managed a net of 50 rushing yards and Hackenberg was sacked four times.
That led to the expected fan criticism of the offensive line. But Hackenberg said it was a team effort.
As for what it will take to bounce back? You know what that is by now. And the quarterback is all for it.
It all comes down to execution, as a whole, and us being able to execute consistently, play in and play out, and do our jobs, Hackenberg said. It's always two or three guys, not necessarily doing things poorly, but not doing things the best that they can -- that's myself included sometimes. We just have to get everything moving in the right direction.