Asked during Tuesday afternoon's Big Ten conference call what Penn State needs to work on during its bye this week, coach James Franklin was succinct.
Everything, he said.
While he said later in the call that he and his staff remain as positive and optimistic as we were heading into the season, he underscored the usual concerns about the offense in general and the line in particular -- concerns that cropped up once again in Saturday's 18-13 loss at Michigan.
It was the Nittany Lions' second straight defeat, and leaves them at 4-2 with a home meeting against No. 13 Ohio State looming the night of Oct. 25. The Buckeyes (4-1) host Rutgers this Saturday.
We've got to play faster, Franklin said. We're not playing as fast as we need to play right now, (or) aggressively. And that's really in all three phases.
The stat sheet tells another tale. The Lions are first in the Big Ten in rushing defense (60.8 yards per game), total defense (283.3) and scoring defense (15.2 ppg) -- numbers that are second, fifth and fifth, respectively, among the nation's 125 major-college teams -- but are last in the conference in rushing (93.2) and scoring (21.2), and 10th in total offense (375.5). Those respective national rankings are 116th, 106th and 92nd.
PSU has had the ball 42 times in three Big Ten games, and managed two touchdowns and six field goals, while going three-and-out 11 times and turning the ball over on four occasions.
Still, Franklin said, I think special teams and offense is probably what everybody's focused on, but I think in all three phases we need to play faster and more aggressive. And being able to consistently run the ball on offense and being able to consistently able to protect our quarterback is probably our biggest challenge.
The Lions managed 65 yards while being shut out in Saturday's second half, and finished with just 214 yards -- 54 on the ground, in 35 attempts. Franklin said the Wolverines did nothing different schematically after the break.
They just had more success, he said. They were able to stop the run more consistently in the second half and able to pressure our quarterback. Those are the things that we have really been dealing with all year long.
Field position was another huge factor, Franklin said. Michigan's Will Hagerup and PSU's Chris Gulla each punted five times, with Hagerup averaging 43.8 yards, Gulla 33.4. Not coincidentally, the Lions began their last five drives of the game at their own 6, 23, 20, 25 and 8.
“We're 4-2 right now, and I think at this same point last year we were 4-2. A lot of teams in the country would love to be in that position right now.”
So all that is weighing on the team as it reaches its second bye. Franklin again said it comes at a good time, as he did when they were idle the week before the Michigan game. Again there will be a chance for bumps and bruises to heal, for the coaches to get on the road and recruit, for fundamentals to be stressed in practice, for some of the younger players to see extended work.
And while he didn't say it, it also affords everyone an opportunity to regroup.
I don't think there's any doubt that when you have back-to-back losses there's an effect to that, an emotional effect to that, he said. But we're 4-2 right now, and I think at this same point last year we were 4-2. A lot of teams in the country would love to be in that position right now.
Again he said everyone remains upbeat, despite the recent disappointments.
There's areas we can improve and play better at, he said, but there's a very bright future here, and we're excited about where we're going and what we're going to have an opportunity to do, next week against Ohio State. It's a great opportunity and a great challenge.
Franklin also said he spoke with quarterback Christian Hackenberg, after the game and before Sunday's practice, and that he plans to speak with him again. The QB has thrown one touchdown pass in the last four games -- that a 10-yard bullet to DaeSean Hamilton in the second quarter Saturday -- and has already been sacked 20 times, two fewer than all last season.
He's like a lot of us: He's a competitor, Franklin said. He wants us to play well, and he wants us to win. He's frustrated, and we're all looking at ourselves, at things we can do better. But he's been really good. He's been really good with his teammates. He's been really good with the coaches.
Now he is looking to improve on the field. Everyone is.