The improvement that Penn State has shown in the 2018 season hasn't been steady. A rough five-game stretch saw the Nittany Lions lose games to Ohio State and Michigan State because they couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead — then they got blown out by Michigan.
But head coach James Franklin feels his team is trending in the right direction again after a 22-10 victory over Wisconsin on Saturday when the Lions played one of their better all-around games of the season.
"I think obviously we were doing a pretty good job at [improving] early in the season and then we hit some adversity like a lot of programs do all over the country," Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly teleconference. "I think we're headed back in that direction again, so I'm pleased with that.
"There was some time there during the season that I didn't think we were doing that. That's something that I've taken great pride in throughout my career as a program that individually and collectively gets better. So I think we're back on that track now. I think last week was an example of that, and we need to do that again this week."
The Nittany Lions (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) hit the road Saturday for the final time this season at Rutgers. Wins there and at home on Nov. 24 against Maryland mean a good bowl game, perhaps the Outback or the Citrus or, if a wildly improbable series of events happen through college football, a third straight New Year's Six bowl.
For now, though, Franklin is just concentrating on the 1-9 Scarlet Knights. When asked Tuesday what he thought it would take to have a successful season, he said that evaluation will have to come later.
"It's hard for me to say that right now because the season's not over," he said. "We're focused on Rutgers. So at the end of the season, when it's all over, we played all our games, I think there's a lot of things we can be proud of … a lot of things that we can build on. But we'll have time to discuss those things after the season."
Franklin feels the areas of improvement start with the running game, particularly the fact that Penn State has reduced its number of tackles for losses, and the defense, which has fortified its depth at tackle and linebacker.
"Last year, 11.36 percent of our plays were tackles for loss, which was 111th in the country," he said. "This year, we're 23rd in the country. So we've made a dramatic improvement there."
On defense, Franklin feels the tackles and the linebackers have gained in confidence and experience, and he gave a special shout-out to redshirt junior tackle Kevin Givens.
"The guy that's not getting a whole lot of love is Kevin Givens, but Kevin for us is killing it," he said. "He's doing his job consistently. Sometimes when you do that, other guys shine. But as a coaching staff and as a team, we know the value that Kevin's bringing. His impact allows other guys to have success."
Franklin admitted that redshirt junior wide receiver Juwan Johnson, a former Glassboro High star who has missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury, "is fighting through some things" and that "we've got to get him 100 percent healthy so he can go out and be the type of player we know he can be." Johnson, who caught 54 passes last season, has just 21 this year. … Quarterback Trace McSorley has been named a finalist for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and the Pop Warner Award. Both are given for achievements on and off the field.