Penn State head coach James Franklin is in Pittsburgh mode, meaning he tries to tamp down any wild fan or media descriptions that the upcoming 100th game in the intrastate rivalry is anything more than the next game on the schedule.
But there was a bit of a twist with Franklin discussing Saturday’s game against the Panthers at Beaver Stadium, that he knows how important it is to all the football alumni and fans who have followed this game for years, even before the 47-year-old coach was born.
“Obviously from a historical perspective, what this game has meant to the state and to college football, from a geographical perspective, we get it,” Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly media teleconference. “The same discussion that comes up all the time is how we approach these games, and we don’t approach them any different. That will never change.
“Do we understand that this is a big game to the media and to the fans and to the lettermen and college football? Yeah, we are not burying our heads in the sand. We understand the significance and the impact of this game, but our approach does not change.”
Maybe not, but Franklin revealed that he and his staff had to change the offensive and defensive signals around in time for Saturday’s game because safety John Petrishen, a safety from Pittsburgh who played mostly on special teams when he did see action, went to the Panthers during the summer as a graduate transfer.
“We didn’t wait until this week to do it,” he said. “We did it right when that was announced, but obviously we had to change all of our signals, on defense and on offense as well, but especially on defense because he knows our signals and those types of things. That was something we had to do right away.”
Besides that, a primary area of concern for Penn State this week is its third-down efficiency, or lack of it. The Nittany Lions’ mark of 17.6% (three conversions in 17 opportunities) ranks 127th in FBS out of 130 teams, beating out only Georgia Southern, UAB and New Mexico.
“We’ve got to be better on third down on both sides, offensive and defensive,” he said. “I think a good thing is we have been one of the most explosive offenses in the country.
“The best offenses are getting the most of their explosive plays on first and second down. But for us to take the next step, we need to continue to be explosive on first and second down, and be more efficient on third down, and then we’ll be really difficult to deal with.”
Franklin apparently isn’t that concerned about time of possession, an area in which the Lions were lacking last week against Buffalo while still managing to defeat the Bulls, 45-13.
Penn State’s offense held the ball for just 17 minutes, 28 seconds to 42:32 for Buffalo and was at a 90-46 disadvantage in the number of snaps. But a 28-point third quarter tended to overshadow any deficiency in the ball-control area.
In fact, Franklin said analytics show time of possession “to not really be as big of a factor when this comes specifically to the greatest impact on winning."
“There are two stats that are dramatically ahead of everything else,” he said, “and that’s creating explosive plays on offense and eliminating explosive plays on defense, and it’s the turnover battle.”