A limit on turnovers, an effective rushing attack, and the ability of the defense to get off the field on third down were hallmarks of Penn State football in the James Franklin era before they all went missing for a large chunk of the 2020 season.
However, these characteristics all returned Saturday just in time for the Nittany Lions to pick up their elusive first victory, 27-17, over Michigan. In fact, they looked so familiar that one had to wonder what took them so long to resurface.
With turnovers the primary emphasis last week, the players delivered with a clean game.
“I think it’s the coaching, and the fundamentals, and the attention to detail that the coaches take and the players take during practice,” Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “It’s some of how you call the game. It’s everybody kind of having an understanding of the importance of it. We’ve done a pretty good job of that over our time here, but I think it was a huge factor in the game.”
The Nittany Lions (1-5) got a break on what appeared to be a fumble by wide receiver Parker Washington that Michigan returned for an apparent touchdown. The play was changed to an incomplete pass on replay review.
“We were fortunate that it got overturned because we haven’t had a whole lot of that this year,” Franklin said. “Some calls that could have gone either way, we haven’t gotten any of them. So that was a big one obviously.”
The rushing attack was strong, delivered by Keyvone Lee, who earned Big Ten freshman of the week honors following his 22-carry, 124-yard output.
“He’s a 230-pound guy with good feet,” Franklin said. “He has really good vision. The other thing is subtle, but it matters. He always is falling forward. That’s something that a lot of times goes unnoticed. You’re talking about another yard and a half, two yards on every run .We’ve needed that. We’ve needed the ability to grind things out.”
The Penn State defense also contributed by holding the Wolverines to just four third-down conversions on 12 opportunities. The Nittany Lions made the game’s biggest stop, a quarterback sneak by Michigan quarterback Joe Milton on fourth-and-one that was turned back with 5 minutes, 37 seconds left to play.
Franklin said it was a matter of making critical plays at critical times.
“I think we played with tremendous grit, which I think is a word that has described us really for six years here, and we did that on Saturday,” he said. “That, I think, is a great example of leadership. Guys really kind of stepped up in those moments and made the plays that we needed to make.”
The Lions also needed to handle some depth issues Saturday. With Devyn Ford returning home due to a death in his family, Lee and fellow freshman Caziah Holmes were the only running backs. Franklin said a season-ending injury to redshirt sophomore Charlie Katshir reduced the numbers at linebacker.
The coach, however, was proud of the performance of a cornerbacks unit that had only three healthy players. Starters Joey Porter Jr. and Marquis Wilson, and backup Daequan Hardy helped hold Michigan’s passing game to 112 yards.
“I made a big deal out of it in the locker room. I made a big deal out of it with those guys individually as well,” Franklin said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in that situation. I know this year is different, but to only have three available, and those guys take all those reps and still factor in on special teams, that was big.”
Franklin said he expects to have one or two more cornerbacks available for Saturday’s game at Rutgers (2-4). Senior Tariq Castro-Fields and sophomore Keaton Ellis each have missed three games with undisclosed injuries.
Franklin said that making big plays has to continue Saturday against the Scarlet Knights. He said he has been impressed with what head coach Greg Schiano has done with the program this season.
“We found a way to make a few more plays than our opponents, and that’s what we needed to do on Saturday, and we were able to do that,” he said. “It’s going to be the same way this Saturday, and it’s going to be the same way from here to whenever in terms of, you’ve got to make plays at critical times.”