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Penn State

Michigan State run defense concerns Penn State

Jerry DiPaola
| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2018, 4:57 p.m.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, left, and Michigan State defensive tackle Raequan Williams talk Saturday’s game in East Lansing, Mich. Williams leads the nationa’s No. 3 run defense.
Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson, left, and Michigan State defensive tackle Raequan Williams talk Saturday’s game in East Lansing, Mich. Williams leads the nationa’s No. 3 run defense.

Penn State coach James Franklin spoke to reporters for nearly an hour Tuesday afternoon, taking questions in-person and via phone from all over the state.

He touched on almost every morsel of information about his program. If you listened carefully, you learned:

• Reporters aren’t the only people bugging him about his team. When Franklin comes home at night, even his wife, Fumi, questions him.

“All those things are good,” he said. “I’m working really hard not to be defensive. (Questions) allow you to make sure you don’t have holes or blind spots in your program.”

• That unranked Michigan State (3-2, 1-1), which visits Beaver Stadium on Saturday, leads the nation in run defense (33.8 yards per game) and is ninth in time of possession (34:30). What he didn’t say is Michigan State is 122nd in the nation in pass defense (305.2).

• That the Penn State coaching staff visited 108 high schools in 20 states last week when there was no game, and Franklin showed up at 25 of them in eight states.

• That he doesn’t want to talk about the 27-26 loss to No. 3 Ohio State on Sept. 29, and he has even less interest in discussing his team’s possible re-entry in the race for the four College Football Playoff berths.

“I really want to move on,” he said, “but it’s hard to answer (reporters’) questions (about Ohio State), and you guys keep asking them. And if I don’t, then I’m rude. I don’t know what the balance is. I’m still trying to figure that out.”

The problem is Penn State’s talent level is such the Nittany Lions are playoff worthy, but they are longshots to get there, thanks to the loss to Ohio State. Hence, the questions, especially the most immediate one: How to keep the loss from lingering?

Penn State faced a similar dilemma last year, also losing to the Buckeyes after blowing a double-digit lead and then losing a week later to Michigan State. Unlike now, however, that was without the benefit of an off week.

When they weren’t recruiting, Franklin and his staff spent last week trying to turn the page and warning players about the Spartans.

Franklin’s most significant concern is how to solve Michigan State’s run defense, led by Mike (6-3, 312) and Jacub Panasiuk (6-3, 266) and nose tackle Raequan Williams (6-4, 304). Franklin knows the brothers well because he tried to recruit them, but they followed coach Mark Dantonio to East Lansing, instead.

“When you look at all those thighs and legs and rear ends, they are massive,” Franklin said.

Michigan State has traditionally been strong against the run, even before the brothers started communicating on the field in Polish to confuse opponents.

The Spartans’ run defense dates back to the eight years Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi spent there as one of the most successful defensive coordinators in the nation. Franklin even gave a shoutout to Narduzzi on Tuesday.

“If you look at this system with Dantonio, coach Narduzzi, with coach (Mike) Tressel (current defensive coordinator),” Franklin said, “they’ve been good on defense, and specifically against the run, for a long time. They take a lot of pride in making you one-dimensional. I throw Narduzzi in there because, obviously, they come from the same family, the same tree.”

Then, there’s Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke, one of the best in the Big Ten —su if he gets the proper protection.

Lewerke is third in the conference in passing yards (1,328) and fifth in completion percentage (64.2), but he’s thrown as many touchdowns as interceptions (six) and been sacked 11 times.

“He can beat you with his arm, his mind and his legs,” Franklin said.

The answer: “Keep him in the pocket so he can’t extend plays.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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