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Penn State offensive coordinator Donovan not worried about critics

DEREK LEVARSE
YorkDispatch

One of his players has called him a genius. His critics have a few different terms in mind, ones that aren't able to be repeated here.

For his part, John Donovan has tried to avoid hearing what labels have been given to him this fall.

"No, I stay in my bubble here and try to worry about week-to-week who we're playing," Penn State's offensive coordinator said Thursday. "I don't want to get involved in anything that could be a distraction. That's not going to help.

"What is going to help is studying our opponent, studying ourselves and finding a way to win."

The wins — five straight now — are what the Nittany Lions are hanging their hat on for now.

The stats behind those victories haven't been as kind — 103rd nationally in total offense (344.3 ypg) and 92nd in scoring offense (25.2 ppg) heading into Saturday's showdown against No. 1 Ohio State.

"We've produced enough to win five games in a row," Donovan said. "That's what we're focused on each and every week, to do what we've got to do to win each game. So if we can do that again this weekend, we're happy."

Franklin not giving him total support: Lions coach James Franklin, however, hasn't been completely happy with the results, saying a few times after wins this season that the offense isn't where it needs to be.

When asked about Donovan in particular, Franklin's answers haven't exactly been filled with sunshine.

"Everything in our program is being evaluated," Franklin said three days after the offense sputtered to 35 total yards in the second half of a lopsided loss to Temple. "Every single aspect of it. We all have responsibilities and everybody's gotta pull their weight."

Just one day later, Franklin proclaimed that he would become more involved in the offense. He started lugging around a play sheet on the sideline the following game.

But Franklin, a former offensive coordinator himself, has elected not to go into any detail whatsoever about his increased role.

Donovan shed no more light on the situation.

"He's involved in every aspect in this program, whether it's football, recruiting, administration," Donovan said of Franklin. "Whatever it is, he's involved in every aspect, and it's always going to be like that."

Right, but how does that level of involvement with the offense compare to the last four years that they've worked together between Penn State and Vanderbilt?

No dice.

"He's involved in every single aspect of this program," Donovan repeated. "He'll give suggestions to everybody. He's the head coach, so he can do that. But it's been the same routine for the last five years or so."

Adapting the scheme: Regardless of who is in charge of what these days with Penn State's offense, it's true that the staff has been able to adapt the scheme to compensate for some still shaky pass protection.

Initially that meant a heavy focus on the run game. But when top rushers Saquon Barkley and Akeel Lynch went down with injuries three weeks ago, the Lions had to gradually rebuild their intermediate and deep passing game.

Last week's win over Indiana produced some of the best results after a slow start as quarterback Christian Hackenberg threw for a pair of 39-yard touchdowns and even surprised the Hoosiers with some scrambling, rushing for two more scores.

Hackenberg credited Donovan for helping the offense open back up and become more balanced.

"He's really focused on his job. He loves doing what he does and he does it a high level," Hackenberg said. "He prepares hard, and that's where we all relate to him. He's a great dude."

Jet sweep package: In particular, the Lions have had success with a jet sweep package that puts a speedy wideout — Brandon Polk or DeAndre Thompkins — in motion for a potential handoff. The Lions have been able to add new wrinkles to the formation such as faking to the receiver and then giving it to the tailback instead for a nice gain up the middle as linebackers track to the outside to defend the sweep.

Against the Hoosiers, the Lions had one of their best-designed plays of the season out of that look. Hackenberg faked the handoff to Polk, faked another handoff to Nick Scott in the backfield and watched as Polk kept running down the right sideline on a wheel route for a casual touchdown throw.

"It's just a form of misdirection," Donovan said. "When you can play with someone's eyes and not let them get locked in all the time on base stuff, that definitely helps. And this is just a version of that. We can do several things off of it and it keeps people honest."

Support in locker room: Plays like that have earned Donovan plenty of confidence from his players. So while Donovan may not be too popular right now among the fan base, that's not the case in the locker room.

It was junior guard Brian Gaia who used the G-word following the win over Army.

"We love Coach Donovan," Gaia said. "He's a genius back there."

Donovan, who also works directly with the tight ends, also has gotten strong support from Mike Gesicki, the sophomore starter at the position.

Though Donovan comes off as far more reserved compared to the overabundant energy of Franklin and some of his other assistants, Gesicki and Hackenberg said he has a great sense of humor.

"He's a funny man," Gesicki said. "He always sets the right mood, when it's time to have fun or when it's time to be serious and focused. He's always cracking jokes and making the mood light.

"I'm happy to play for him day-in and day-out."