There are plenty of reasons, James Franklin says, for Penn State’s steady defensive improvement this season.
Coaches just have to be careful they don’t pay too much attention to one of the most obvious ones.
At his weekly press conference Tuesday, the Nittany Lions head coach said the play of his young defense has been led in most part by a team-first attitude that has eschewed statistics and personal glory.
“The thing that I would say about our defense, and (defensive coordinator Brent Pry), is we’ve got guys that aren’t selfish,” Franklin said. “You have to be careful. Sometimes you get in a situation where coaches are making decisions based off of stats. They want to be able to, on Sunday, whether you won or lost, focus on these stats. And I think we’ve got a group of men that it’s about winning.
“There are some things and choices and decisions that are made that probably go against stats. ... We’re making decisions that we think are in the best interests of the team and winning football.”
Franklin didn’t mention any players specifically when talking about the fine line between the benefits and pitfalls of reliance on statistics, but there was plenty of talk lately surrounding true freshman linebacker Micah Parsons, who leads the Nittany Lions in tackles despite not starting a game this season. Parsons played most of the second half in place of senior Koa Farmer, and many have wondered whether Parsons might be in line for more playing time.
Thing is, Franklin didn’t exactly rule that out; he simply made the point that sexy statistics don’t always show a player’s value.
After a stretch of games in which Penn State’s defensive line was a major factor in wins, Franklin pointed out that defensive tackle Kevin Givens — the lone starter who isn’t garnering eye-catching statistical success — has been “killing it” during the second half of the season. He has done his job well, Franklin insisted, and doing so has created one-on-one matchups that led to star turns for ends Yetur Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller, as well as defensive tackle Robert Windsor, who excelled in Saturday's 22-10 win over Wisconsin.
“It’s funny, sometimes I’ll go in to reinforce a point with stats,” Franklin said. “I’ll bring up something about player rotation and how this guy’s leading us in tackles and things like that, and Brent’s not concerned about those things. He obviously takes the feedback and likes the feedback; but, for him it’s about him watching the tape with the coaching staff and what we’re doing well, accountability and trust and discipline and those types of things.”
Incidentally, there is a statistical argument to make for Farmer’s improvement, considering his per-game production this season (4.1 tackles per game) has exceeded the 3.7 tackles per game he managed in starting 13 games last season.
Tommy time, part one: Franklin said backup quarterback Tommy Stevens’ passing performances over the last few weeks are not indicative of how much he has improved as a thrower over the last few seasons.
Despite dropping back to throw several times in relief of starter Trace McSorley in last week’s win over Wisconsin, Stevens elected to run rather than throw, a trait he has shown consistently this season.
Franklin indicated there may be a reason for that.
“The reality is, from a game-plan perspective, especially when we lost (veteran backup running back) Mark Allen and we had some young guys that got a little nicked up, we were trying to take some runs off of Trace and really Miles (Sanders),” he said. “That was the way to manage some of that in some ways we were using him as our backup running back. So that was strategic.”
Franklin is pleased with Stevens’ development as a quarterback, saying improved decision-making helped him complete a high percentage of his throws in practice.
Tommy time, part two: An ugly and ill-timed fumble late in the win over the Badgers is stuck in the craw of Penn State fans, and Franklin indicated Tuesday a motion called by Stevens and run by Sanders was “miscommunication” that essentially led to Sanders colliding with center Michal Menet’s snap.
Franklin passionately defended the play call, saying if it were executed better, it would have done plenty to keep defenses on their toes down the road.
“On film, we had what we expected and what we were looking for,” Franklin said. “But we did not time up the motion correctly.
“Snapping the ball to Tommy and running the ball is one thing. But when you can give the defense something else to worry about, a hand-off to someone on the perimeter, some eye candy, something that’s going to give them a little bit of misdirection, there’s tremendous value in that.”