Penn State might be undefeated and ranked second in the nation, but the team still needs to improve in a number of areas, particularly along the offensive line and with its field goal kicking.
James Franklin has a way of dealing with both issues.
"We're going to keep working at it, keep loving those guys up, keep getting them ready," the Nittany Lions coach said Tuesday at his weekly teleconference.
The Lions (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) have a "White Out" date Saturday night against No. 19 Michigan (5-1, 2-1), a team with one of the nation's best defenses and a splendid field goal kicker in sophomore Quinn Nordin, who had given Penn State a "soft" commitment two years ago before signing with the Wolverines.
While the Nittany Lions have posted decisive victories over Indiana and Northwestern in their last two games, their offense hasn't been clicking as well as earlier in the season. Saquon Barkley rushed for 131 yards on 36 carries in the two games combined, and Trace McSorley was sacked a total of nine times.
For the season, Penn State has taken 16 sacks, tying it for 101st of the 129 FBS teams. Its average of 8.33 tackles for loss per game is topped by only eight FBS teams.
"The area I would say that we've spent a lot of time talking about is eliminating the negative-yardage plays," Franklin said. "If we just eliminate those, the plays where we get tackled behind the line of scrimmage, whether that's a block getting beat or them doing a great job of disguising what they're doing or whatever it is, that will really help us. It will keep us on schedule from a first-down perspective. It will extend drives."
The Lions will have to figure something out quickly. Michigan owns the nation's stingiest defense, ranking first nationally in yards allowed, fewer than 234 per game.
"The way they play defensive football, we're going to have some challenges — there's no doubt about it," Franklin said. "That's where the mobility of the quarterback position is important. That's where staying patient in the run game is important. That's where getting the ball out of the quarterback's hand is important."
Franklin said that while McSorley will take some shots down the field, "that also means holding on to the ball a little bit longer."
The coach added, however, that he has confidence in the line and that "I think we're going to play well on Saturday. I really do."
As for field goals, senior Tyler Davis has made just 6 in 13 attempts after coming into the season having made 30 of 32. With three tough games – Michigan, No. 6 Ohio State, No. 18 Michigan State – coming in the next three weeks, a late kick could make a major impact on the Lions' playoff hopes.
Franklin does not seem fazed, however.
"We've got to get a few kinks worked out with our protection, with our holding, with our snapping, with our kicking; it's a little bit of all of those things," he said. "But I believe in Tyler Davis as much as I believe in any player on our team. He'll be ready when the time comes."
For Michigan, Nordin has kicked 14 of 16 field goal tries, with a long of 55 yards.