According to Penn State head coach James Franklin, the unveiling of the Nittany Lions’ revamped attack under new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich for Saturday’s season opener at Wisconsin won’t be that much that’s different. As they say in any gift shop in America, it’s all about the packaging.
“For the most part, everybody in college football and now the NFL are running the same [offensive] schemes,” Franklin said Tuesday in his first game week Zoom call of the season. “It’s about how you package them. Mike obviously has had a lot of success in how he packages the plays that pretty much everybody is running.
“There’s also that aspect of a play-caller — there are four to six calls a game where you’re going to differentiate yourself from others. Statistically, Mike’s been able to do that over his career.”
Yurcich’s three stops at FBS schools before moving on to Happy Valley have been at Oklahoma State, Ohio State, and Texas. Under his guidance in 2020, the Longhorns ranked eighth in scoring offense (42.7 points per game, second in Texas history) and 19th in total offense (475.4 yards per game).
After their 0-5 start last season, the Nittany Lions finally got things together and won their last four. They averaged 430.3 yards of total offense (37th in FBS) and 29.8 points (54th).
The 19th-ranked Lions this year had an entire cycle to prepare for this season opener — winter workouts, spring practice, summer drills, and training camp. Still, they will be facing a tough test in the No. 12 Badgers, who were fifth in the nation last season in both total yards allowed (299.9 per game) and rushing yards (96.1), and ninth in points given up (17.4).
For all the preparing Franklin and his assistants have done throughout camp, you never know exactly what’s going to happen when you’re trying to focus in a hostile environment like the one the Lions will face at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, where fans in the sellout crowd will scream as loudly as they can.
“We just try to cover as much as we possibly can,” Franklin said. “We spend a lot of time talking about situational football, covering all those topics in detail not only in practice but also in the meeting room as well and explain what the situation means, talk about what our philosophy is.
“We just try to do the best we can to get everybody prepared, but you don’t ever truly know until you step out into that environment. The more veteran players you have help with that. The experience matters because those guys have been in those types of environments before. All you can do is do everything you possibly can to be as thorough and as detailed as you can.”
One veteran is Penn State’s top playmaker, senior wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who led the Big Ten last season in receiving yardage (884) and was third in catches with 52, eight for touchdowns. Sean Clifford will start at quarterback for the third consecutive year, and will see his third version of his team’s offense.
“I think with the experience that we have up front,” Franklin said, “with the experience that we have at tight end, running back and quarterback, that we have some opportunities to take advantage … whether it’s scheme or whether it’s some athletic things that we think can be challenging for their defense, it’s going to be exciting to watch.”
He added that the Badgers “play hard and they’re sound, but obviously we feel like we’re talented and got a really good scheme as well. So that will be a great challenge for us.”
Franklin said the Nittany Lions will not release a depth chart for public viewing this season. “I really don’t have a strong opinion either way,” he said. “There have been multiple schools in the conference that haven’t been releasing it for a number of years.” He mentioned at least seven schools, including Ohio State, that haven’t released one or have thought about not releasing one. … The coach confirmed that redshirt sophomore Ta’Quan Roberson would back up Clifford at quarterback. “He has done some really nice things,” he said. “He’s thrown for a high percentage. For a while there, his attempts without an interception [percentage] was ridiculously high.” … Franklin said two players — fifth-year senior Anthony Whigan and graduate transfer Eric Wilson — will rotate at left guard, the one offensive line position that was up for grabs in training camp.