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With nothing but Big Ten games ahead, No. 4 Penn State needs to fix its running game and fight complacency

The Nittany Lions gained 509 yards against Villanova but only 80 yards on the ground. Coach James Franklin also didn't like the way his players "were getting patted on the back" after three wins

Penn State coach James Franklin knows there are some areas his team needs to improve on as it more Big Ten teams.
Penn State coach James Franklin knows there are some areas his team needs to improve on as it more Big Ten teams.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Even though his team rolled up a season-high 509 yards of total offense against Villanova and won handily, Penn State head coach James Franklin felt he needed to be cautious in what he said after the game to his players.

“What I would never want to do is go in a locker room after a win and it doesn’t feel like a win,” he said Saturday after the Nittany Lions defeated Villanova, 38-17, at Beaver Stadium. “I think you have to be very careful of that as a coach.”

Yet Franklin thought of two areas where the fourth-ranked Lions (4-0) didn’t distinguish themselves. One was in the way they practiced during the week, especially on Wednesday. The other was the continuing problem of the running game, where they managed only 80 yards and averaged 2.4 yards per carry. The Wildcats (3-1) entered allowing 29.3 rush yards per game.

“I don’t know if we had the same edge today that we’ve had the previous three weeks,” Franklin said.

Maybe the Nittany Lions were due for a letdown, especially after a three-week stretch that saw them defeat two ranked teams – Wisconsin and Auburn – in a pair of down-to-the-wire games. But Franklin, whose mantra of “1-0 each week” does not allow for complacency, will not accept that as an excuse.

The Lions have nothing but Big Ten games for the rest of the regular season, beginning Saturday night at home against Indiana. An Oct. 9 matchup at Iowa could be a matchup of two top-10 teams, since Penn State moved to No. 4 from sixth in the AP poll.

“We did not practice the way I think we should practice on Wednesday,” Franklin said. “We’ve had very little of that since I’ve been here. The other thing I would say is we haven’t really had a lot of that during camp.

“I thought Wednesday we did not have a good practice, so I think they’re getting patted on the back. I think they are reading articles, and we’ll make sure that there’s no leftovers of that come Sunday (at the team meeting). I’ll make sure that we clear all those things out of the fridge.”

Quarterback Sean Clifford, who threw for 401 yards and four touchdowns, said his team had a bad feeling after Wednesday and turned it around, but they can’t allow more poor practice sessions.

“It wasn’t up to our standard and we have a very high standard,” he said. “We talk about it every day. We can’t let one practice slip away. There’s going to be mistakes that happen. That’s how football is, that’s how life is.

“You can’t let a whole day slip away. We did that Wednesday. It honestly reflected a lot in this game. We still won, but there was a lot of stuff that can be cleaned up.”

Perhaps the clean-up will start with the run game. The Lions’ longest gain was 13 yards by John Lovett, who led the team with 45 yards on 11 carries. Noah Cain, the team’s top rusher, carried the ball just once for two yards, but Franklin said he got “dinged” in the Auburn game and “didn’t practice much.”

Franklin said his concern with a subpar running game is that opponents will key their defenses on stopping the pass. The Lions entered the game ranking 101st in FBS in rush offense.

» READ MORE: Penn State uses explosive passing plays to defeat Villanova, 38-17, but concerns remain

“You can’t be one-dimensional,” he said. “You can’t sustain it, being one-dimensional. You have to be able to run; there’s going to be times where we’re going to have to run the ball out on offense and a four-minute offense is going to magnify those issues. We have to find a way to improve in these areas.”

Guard Eric Wilson called Villanova “very physical and very tough,” and felt that offensive line coach Phil Trautwein will demand improvement.

“Coach Traut’s a technician,” he said. “He’s going to get us right and we need to have our ears open and listen and really apply what he teaches us to the game field, not just the practice field. We have some things to clean up. You guys saw it and we’re ready to do that this week, focus on Indiana.”

The Penn State defense limited Villanova to 106 total yards and three points in the first three quarters. The Wildcats feasted on the Lions’ reserves in the fourth, with Daniel Smith hitting Rayjoun Pringle on TD strikes of 57 and 17 yards, and gaining 174 total yards.

“When they go in, they have to live up to the standard,” Franklin said, “and we did not do that today with our depth guys and with our backup guys, so that’ll be something we’ll address during the week.”

However, there was plenty to feel good about for Penn State in the passing game. Clifford’s longest seven completions were 83, 67, 52, 52, 30, 25, and 23 yards, or an average of 47.4 yards per completion. Starting receivers Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington, and KeAndre Lambert-Smith accounted for 17 catches, four touchdowns, and 353 yards – 204 of them coming after the catch.

Notes. The Big Ten announced that Penn State’s game at Iowa on Oct. 9 will kick off at 4 p.m. and be televised by Fox29. … Villanova special teams player Tyler Will suffered a concussion while making a tackle on the second-half kickoff and was taken to a nearby hospital for observation. A Wildcats spokesman said Will was released after the game and returned home with his parents.