O’HARE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – A few thoughts/observations/leftover notes from what was, for my money, arguably the most humiliating Penn State loss of the past decade:
—-It was, perhaps, a throw-away comment from James Franklin, who generally ensures his remarks to the media are well-orchestrated. Or was it?
At the end of a long answer to a question that was originally about the coaching staff’s confidence level in quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Franklin initially explained that Penn State was so run-heavy (47 rushes; 16 pass attempts) against Illinois, quite simply, (paraphrasing) because the Illini have such a poor rush defense.
Then, Franklin meandered into talking about the dangers of being too predictable on third-and-longs. But what caught my attention was what he said at the end of his answer to this question about two-thirds of the way through an approximately 11 ½-minute postgame session with the media.
Another reporter was about to ask another question, but Franklin talked over him to make sure he said this (the context is the season-long struggles on offense and what the cause is):
“Our consistency in protection, our consistency in hitting the open receivers – our consistency is probably more an issue of being able to separate in our route ruining.“
OK, again, forgive me if I read too much into this. But like I said, I am convinced Franklin usually calculates exactly what he wants to say. (Which, most times, isn’t much in terms of substance because he believes he’s protecting the program – which is fine). I found it interesting that, essentially, Franklin is “blaming” (that’s an awful word he would never use, but bare with me) the wide receivers more than he is the offensive line and quarterback for the offense’s ineptitude.
That would seem to make sense he would say that, based on his actions this season. Plus, after all, for as much attention as the lack of experience of the offensive line gets, remember that the wide receivers as a group entered this season with 24 catches. Total. Ever in college. The depth chart stands as such: Redshirt freshman-sophomore-true freshman-true freshman.
The wide receivers caught three passes for 33 yards – total, as a group – against Illinois. Recall also that Geno Lewis – by far the group’s most accomplished (despite having only 18 career catches entering the season) player as of the summer – was all but benched during the midseason. The reasoning remains vague, but… is it possible that he just isn’t getting open?
Hamilton, either? And who can blame true freshman (although Illinois’ Mike Dudek certainly doesn’t appear as if he needed a period of adjustment), but Chris Godwin and Saeed Blacknall, as well?
The four wide receivers were targeted a total of eight times Saturday (Lewis’ only catch was on the desperate hook-and-ladder at the end), a day in which Hackenberg avoided an interception for the first time in a game in which he played a full four quarters this season. Is that a complete coincidence?
We have definitely seen several cases of Hackenberg and the receivers not being on the same page in their routes. We’ve also seen some drops. I’m not a real knowledgeable football film buff, but my untrained eye can at least notice at times that these receivers are, indeed, are having trouble creating separation from defenders. And I will say that people whom I respect who have a much more keen eye that me assert that it is absolutely the case.
Franklin’s public treatment of Hackenberg has been intriguing. It’s obvious that Hackenberg’s stat-based production has been downright ugly this season. Two camps seem to be forming on him: One believes that, as an uber-talented future high NFL draft pick, Hackenberg is being done in by his line, his receivers and his coaches. Another faction of PSU observers is labeling him a bust who needs benched.
I would never suggest benching Hackenberg, but other than that, I go back and forth on him between these camps. I understand – I really do – all the explanations: He has no time to throw, he has precious few weapons, he has a new system that is not tailored to his skills, he’s still quite young, etc. But I also think everyone has to acknowledge that Hackenberg has missed open receivers and made poor decisions at times.
Franklin hasn’t once thrown Hackenberg under the proverbial bus, and no one expects him to. But Franklin also hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to prop up the budding superstar quarterback he inherited, either. His “Christian Hackenberg is our quarterback, and we love him,” answer to a recent question asking if Hackenberg could be benched, quite frankly, was weak and came across as a tacit acknowledgment on Franklin’s behalf that Hackenberg hasn’t been good. We’re all still trying to learn Franklin’s style in dealing with media questions, but is it notable that Franklin hasn’t come out in no uncertain and unambiguous terms and lauded the single most talented player on his team? One who just happens to play the most important position on the field?
That is a big reason why my eyebrows figuratively raised when I heard Franklin’s ever-so-subtle allusion to receivers not getting open.
One last thing on this subject: By all indications from coaches, analysts, scouting types and NFL personnel, Hackenberg’s status as a future first-round pick and pro quarterback remain safely intact. For all that’s ailed Hackenberg this season, that arm is still there – just about once a game, he’ll show off a reminder (Saturday, it was his touchdown pass to Godwin, along with another bullet of a throw that came while he was running and off his back foot). For what it’s worth, the intangibles are still there, too.
To borrow one of Franklin’s colloquialisms, pro scouts still “have a man-crush” on Hackenberg. The question is, will he ever again perform well enough for Penn State that Nittany Lions fans return to having that kind of affection for him, as well?
—-Another rare in-team target for Franklin on Saturday: The defense. Especially, its tackling.
Check out some Franklin quotes:
“We weren’t able to get pressure on the quarterback, probably less than we have all year long. Our tackling was not good – throwing shoulders. A lot of broken tackles, a lot of missed tackles, especially late in the game.
“We’re throwing shoulders. We’re not wrapping up; we’re throwing the shoulder and going for big hits. We were not fundamentally sound in tackling. “
Defensive players that were made available to the media postgame (C.J Olaniyan, Brad Bars, Nyeem Wartman, Jordan Lucas) acknowledged that it wasn’t their best tackling day.
“We definitely left a lot of plays out there where we didn’t wrap up and they got extra yards,” Lucas said.
Being down Brandon Bell (the team’s third-leading tackler) and Christian Campbell (a cornerback who’s shown his tackling acumen on special teams) didn’t help. And Franklin cited fatigue (both the late-game and late-season types) as a factor.
—-Penn State’s running game, statistically at least, wasn’t bad Saturday. Akeel Lynch amassed a 137-yard day and the team ran for 172 yards (third-most this season) in all. But it must be remembered that PSU was playing a downright awful run defense in Illinois (330 yards per game allowed to Big Ten opponents!). And Franklin didn’t sound like the running game passed the ol’ eye test.
“You look at the running game, we were able to block it pretty well, and then the safety was down there in attack,” Franklin said. “The (previous) couple weeks, we made safeties miss, we’d broken tackles. That didn’t happen today.”
It especially didn’t happen when the Lions needed it most. Here are Penn State’s carries over its final two full drives, when it was nursing a lead and desperate to run clock:
Lynch 3 yards, Lynch 6 yards, Lynch 2 yards, (punt… next possession:) Lynch 3 yards, Lynch 2 yards, (Hackenberg scramble, 4 yards… punt).
On the bright side locally, walk-in Cole Chiappialle of Blackhawk was given carries outside of proverbial “garbage time” for the first time in his career. An early-game injury to Bill Belton pressed Chiappialle into duty. He had 8 yards on three carries.
Enjoy your week. I think this is the part where I’m supposed to compel you to be nice (or something) to each other, right?