It wasn’t your typical season opener for Penn State. Yes, the Nittany Lions won for the fifth time in the last six years but they did it against a ranked team on the road at Wisconsin, and without any of the glaring errors that mark the first game of a season.
“We were able to clean up a lot of the things that you see early in the season,” head coach James Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly Zoom press conference, reviewing Saturday’s 16-10 win over the 12th-ranked Badgers. “Whether it’s missed tackles or substitution issues or whether it’s burning timeouts unnecessarily, I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”
Franklin said his team adjusted to NCAA rule changes for training camp that don’t allow as much live work as in the past, including some that helped on defense and special teams such as “a specific drill we had not done in the past that was really valuable for us.”
The Lions, who are ranked 11th in the latest Associated Press poll, won the turnover battle, 3-0. Their offense slumbered through the first half but came on in the second for 254 yards, including 206 passing yards by Sean Clifford. The defense, which was on the field for more than 10 minutes in each quarter, stopped the last two Wisconsin drives with interceptions from safeties Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown.
“I felt like our guys willed it to happen with their mentality and approach,” Franklin said. “I thought we played really good complimentary football.”
One penalty that raised a bit of controversy came in the first quarter when Penn State cornerback A.J. Lytton hit Dean Engram a split second after he caught a punt, resulting in a 15-yard penalty for kick-catching interference.
“The way that rule’s been interpreted in the past, you have to give the returner an opportunity to catch it,” Franklin said. “Once they catch it, you can hit him. I thought it was a bang-bang play.
“We’re not upset with A.J. We teach them once the hands go up, we want them to shoot. We’ve made some adjustments to how we coach it. A.J. did it exactly how we coached him to do it.”
It was a bit of a mixed day for Jordan Stout. The Penn State punter boomed seven punts for an average of 53.9 yards and knocked all four of his kickoffs through the end zone. But he missed a 23-yard field goal in the third quarter and his extra point attempt after the Lions’ final touchdown clanked off the left upright.
Franklin said all three elements – snap, hold and kick – need to be consistent.
“A couple of times there, we did not have the laces out,” he said. “It doesn’t matter at the end of the day. We’ve got to make the kick. But it’s more than just the kick. It’s protection. That showed up obviously with our blocked kick. It’s all of it. So we’ve got to get that cleaned up.”
Lions defensive end Arnold Ebiketie blocked a 25-yard attempt by Wisconsin’s Collin Larsh in the second quarter.
Stout, who had been Penn State’s kicker for longer distance field goals the past two seasons, beat out three-year starter Jake Pinegar in training camp. Pinegar has made 73.5% (36 of 49) of his career field-goal attempts.
“Based on all the numbers of training camp, [Stout] won the job,” Franklin said. “I think Jake Pinegar still has a tremendous future. We’re going to need him at some point this year as well.”
Middle linebacker Ellis Brooks, who was ejected midway through the fourth quarter after being penalized for targeting, will sit out the first half of Saturday’s home opener against Ball State. Brooks finished with a game-high 11 tackles against Wisconsin. … The strongest competition in training camp was at left guard, and redshirt senior Anthony Whigan and senior Eric Wilson, a transfer from Harvard, saw just about an equal amount of playing time. “We thought Eric played well,” Franklin said. “We thought Whigan did some good things, too. We’ll decide this week based on last week’s game and what we do this week, to determine who will start and who will play more on Saturday.” … Franklin was mum on the status of junior safety Keaton Ellis, redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Hakeem Beamon and graduate running back John Lovett, none of whom made the trip to Wisconsin. The coach would say only the three “were not available” for the game and their status this week is “to be determined.” … Franklin, who grew up in Langhorne, Bucks County, was asked if he ever had worked out with any NFL players while playing high school or college football. “Ron Jaworski had a training facility by my house,” he said, referring to the former Eagles quarterback. “I actually have a pretty cool picture of me holding the football and Ron Jaworski coaching me up at this clinic. That’s probably the most impressive guy I got a chance to work out with.”