Penn State dazed by Illinois
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — James Franklin has been asked a lot this season about his long-term future, and those questions continued Tuesday as the Penn State coach was grilled about his name being linked to openings outside Happy Valley.
Franklin has a more immediate concern, however. He needs to find a way to pull a team that started 5-0 out of its current free fall. He’ll have to do it on the road against No. 5 Ohio State, where only a win will keep Penn State’s slim College Football Playoff hopes alive.
“We’ve got to find a way to score some points, because obviously (Ohio State) has the ability to put points on the board,” Franklin said.
The Buckeyes lead the country in total offense, averaging nearly 560 yards and 49 points per game. With games still to be played against No. 6 Michigan and No. 8 Michigan State, the 20th-ranked Nittany Lions (5-2) need to get back to making big plays to help their defense and stave off what could be an ugly finish to the season.
“We have a lot of vets on this team,” receiver Jahan Dotson said. “So a lot of guys have been in this position before. The biggest thing for us, executing, that was the main thing. Being more physical, that’s every position group, the wide receivers, running backs, O-linemen. That’s a big thing for us moving forward.”
Ever since quarterback Sean Clifford was injured in the first half at Iowa on Oct. 9, that’s been hard for them to do.
A field goal was all the Nittany Lions could manage without Clifford against the Hawkeyes. They scored 10 points in regulation against Illinois on Saturday with a banged-up Clifford back on the field.
Meanwhile, nagging injuries to three of the team’s top four running backs coupled with a lack of blocking help has left Clifford with no support. Penn State has failed to exceed 3 yards per carry in four games and averaged 2.1 in Saturday’s nine-overtime loss to Illinois.
The team had a handful of opportunities to win the game with a 3-yard run in the 2-point shootout format, but couldn’t get the ball across the goal line.
“It’s hard knowing that we had a chance to win that game and it really hurt us,” defensive end Arnold Ebiketie said. “We can’t just focus on the past. We have to move forward because we have another opponent ahead, so right now we’re just trying to shift all of our focus into Ohio State.”
Ebiketie believes the Buckeyes will adjust their game plan to take advantage of the weakness Illinois exploited.
Penn State captain PJ Mustipher’s absence in the middle prompted the Illini to feature a run-heavy attack. While the sturdy defensive tackle watched from crutches on the sideline, Illinois ran for 357 yards with two backs behind seven- and eight-man fronts.
“We wouldn’t be surprised if they try and adjust to that and bring some of those overload fronts into the game,” Ebiketie said.
Franklin said he expects Clifford to be fully healthy for Saturday’s evening kickoff.
Clifford completed 19 of 34 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown and was sacked four times by Illinois. After each one, he got up slowly, sometimes shaking or stretching his right arm. Penn State did not call any designed runs for him, an aspect of his playing style the team badly misses.
“That’s a big part of Sean and what his game is, his ability to extend plays, his ability to keep the defense honest and be able to make a play or two throughout the game with his legs,” Franklin said. “He was limited, obviously, in what he could do and we tried to limit it as much as we could as well.”
Franklin’s other challenge all season has been limiting the chatter about his future.
His name has come up for coaching vacancies in past seasons and is now being floated as a candidate at Southern California and LSU. In eight seasons at Penn State, Franklin is 65-30. Penn State won the Big Ten championship in 2016 and finished ranked in the AP Top 10 in three of the last four years. His contract with Penn State runs through 2025.
Franklin hasn’t outright said he intends to stay at Penn State, but has said it is a topic he’s addressed with the team.
“I think I’ve shown over my eight years my commitment to this university and this community,” Franklin said.