Penn State coach James Franklin wants more physical play
STATE COLLEGE — Penn State coach James Franklin has noticed a personality trait shared by his offensive linemen: They're all nice guys.
Franklin hopes they can find a collective mean streak when the No. 16 Nittany Lions (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten, No. 14 CFP) host Rutgers (4-5, 3-3) on Saturday.
Penn State could use a strong performance up front to get its sluggish running game going, snap a two-game skid and stay alive for a New Year's Six bowl game.
“I think it's just a mentality more than anything,” Franklin said. “I think sometimes we're happy with just blocking the guy as well as we think we need to to get the job done, rather than sending a message and trying to finish a guy and pancake blocks and things like that.”
Penn State's chances to play for the national championship almost certainly slipped away with losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, in which an often explosive offense became one-dimensional. A lack of push up front slowed Heisman Trophy candidate Saquon Barkley, who had just 107 combined rushing yards against the Buckeyes and Spartans. Barkley's 15-game touchdown streak ended in East Lansing, too.
The ground game has suffered without starting left tackle Ryan Bates, who was hurt against Ohio State and hasn't played since. He wasn't listed on Penn State's depth chart released Tuesday.
Recent struggles aside, the line has paved the way for three games of more than 200 rushing yards. The Scarlet Knights offer a favorable matchup, too. They've allowed a combined 780 rushing yards in their last three games.
“These guys have done this,” Franklin said. “I've seen them do it. But they've kind of, I think, just been satisfied with what we've been doing, and I think for us to go where we want to go, we've got to take the next step.”
Franklin's request for more physical play extended to his defensive line, too.
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett and Michigan State's Brian Lewerke worked freely on late, game-winning drives. Barrett completed his last 16 throws and Lewerke completed 9 of 14 passes for 156 yards on third down.
The Nittany Lions are playing without two of their top four defensive ends. Starter Torrence Brown was lost for the season in the opening week, and his backup, Ryan Buchholz, suffered a leg injury against Ohio State. Buchholz is expected to return eventually but was not listed on the depth chart for Saturday.
“We need to develop the defensive ends that we're playing with,” Franklin said. “There's no doubt about it: That makes it more challenging on the linebackers. They might have to fight off more blocks.”
Rutgers tailback Gus Edwards will look to exploit Penn State's weakened edges. A transfer from Miami, Edwards is coming off his best game with 109 yards on 21 carries against Maryland last week. He also caught a go-ahead, 23-yard touchdown pass in the victory, using a crisp cut to make the first defender miss and outrunning the rest of Maryland's defense.
Penn State's defense has been vulnerable to receivers in space lately, so Edwards' abilities will be a concern.
Edwards will have help. Rutgers coach Chris Ash wants to use Robert Martin, Raheem Blackshear and Josh Hicks to share the load in a run-heavy offense that's averaged 154 yards over its last three games, with 10 combined touchdowns.
“Right now, we're very lucky and fortunate that we have several players that we have confidence in, that can go out and make plays in the running game,” Ash said.