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Tuesday’s with James: Key Talking Points from James Franklin’s Michigan-Week Press Conference

James Franklin

Penn State certainly wants to make sure Saturday’s game is nothing like the most recent game played at Beaver Stadium when Illinois ruined Homecoming with an upset win. 

Michigan is the most prominent Big 10 opponent Penn State has coming to Happy Valley in 2021, and the first-ever “Helmet Stripe game” will celebrate the occasion. 

We need this place rocking on Saturday,” Franklin said. “12:00 start, the breakfast and brunch tailgating will be phenomenal. We need everybody into the stadium as early as possible.”

Franklin also looks forward to fans paying homage to “the most iconic helmet in all of football.”

“It hasn’t changed, it doesn’t need to change, and having the helmet stripe game in the stadium is something that new and hopefully could be cool for us,” he said. 

Red zone=In the zone

Penn State’s red zone defense has been stout all season and did its job again last week at Maryland. The Terps scored just twice in five trips to the red zone, and this followed Ohio State going just 1-5 in that area.

Overall, the Nittany Lions allow opponents to score just 64.7% of the time in the red zone, which leads the Big 10. Since the NCAA started keeping that stat, only the 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes have had a better percentage.

The Nittany Lions are third in the country in preventing teams from scoring red zone touchdowns, and Penn State tops all power five schools with 12 red zone stops. 

Franklin said Tuesday that the length of Penn State’s defenders has contributed to this success. 

“There’s a lot of ways to reduce space on defense,” he said. “Obviously, one way is with speed, to be able to close windows or stay in man coverage. But also the length is important. Having two corners over six foot, two safety’s over six foot, all of our linebackers over six foot and one at 6-4, I think those things help as well.”

Welcome back, Josh

Franklin is quite familiar with Michigan’s offensive coordinator

Josh Gattis worked on Franklin’s staff — first at Vanderbilt from 2012-’13, then at Penn State from ’14-17 — before moving to Alabama before the 2018 season. 

After a year in Tuscaloosa, Gattis moved to Ann Arbor, where he’s been Michigan’s offensive coordinator since 2019.

Franklin said he feels Gattis’ playcalling was at first not much different from what he worked with at Penn State but has changed since. 

“In years past, it probably was similar,” he said. “I think this year there’s been a change. Obviously, very early in the season, when they were run-heavy, I think it was probably a blend of what Josh has done, both at Penn State and at Alabama, and then also, obviously, I think this offseason, with things that coach Harbaugh had done in his past, specifically, obviously, at Stanford. So, I think there’s

probably little bit more of an influence in that than Josh has shown in the past. I think it’s been a good blend for them.”

A different kind of beast

Penn State’s defensive line has had a different look since PJ Mustipher went down with a season-ending injury against Iowa Oct. 9. 

With players such as Derrick Tangelo, Coziah Izzard and Dvon Ellies having to play more prominent roles, the front has experienced some growing pains, such as allowing 357 yards to Illinois, but has held its own for the most part in the four weeks post-Mustipher. Last week, Penn State held Maryland to just 48 yards rushing in 27 carries for a paltry 1.8 average. 

It now faces a much stiffer test. 

The Wolverines have the top rushing attack in the Big 10 and are fifth in the country in yards per game. Led by Hassan Haskins (829 yards, 11 touchdowns, 5.0 yards-per-carry) and Blake Corum (778 yards, 10 touchdowns, 6.0 yards per carry), the Wolverines’ runners will present Penn State with its biggest challenge to date, a challenge made even more difficult by defensive tackle Fred Hansard being suspended for the first half. 

“I think that’s a big part of their identity and who they are,” Franklin said. “They’re massive upfront with the o-line and the tight ends. They have a converted o-lineman playing tight end as well to serve in that role. They have a big back (Haskins) that can hammer it in there, and then they have an undersized quick back (Corum) that also does a great job of breaking tackles and plays with more power than you would think. So, it’s going to be a challenge, there’s no doubt about it.”

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