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Rich Scarcella | The Reading Eagle | October 4, 2017

Nittany Lions can't get comfortable with big games looming

  Saquon Barkley is tearing opposing defenses up, but he can't get complacent yet.

Penn State is unbeaten and ranked fourth in the nation nearly halfway through its regular season.

But coach James Franklin didn't sound satisfied Tuesday.

Franklin wants the Nittany Lions to "get better" in several areas, a theme he mentioned about a dozen times during his 45-minute weekly press conference.

He wants the offense to be more effective on short-yardage situations. He wants the offensive linemen to sustain their blocks for a half-second longer. He wants the defensive linemen to show more gap responsibility.

He wants the kick coverage guys to get down the field quicker. And, of course, he wants the placekicking operation to clean up its mistakes.

"It's the little things," Franklin said. "It's the details. It's the focus. It's the finishing. It's the straining. That's been my argument to the coaches, the trainers, the doctors and the players. If everybody can just get a little bit better, just 1 percent better, then that's going to add up.

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"All those little percentage points are going to help us and hopefully give us a little bit more margin for error."

Penn State (2-0 Big Ten, 5-0) takes on Northwestern (0-1, 2-2) Saturday at noon (TV-ABC) at Ryan Field before taking a midseason bye.

When the Lions return to action, they face a difficult three-game stretch that will define their season: a home game against Michigan and back-to-back road games against Ohio State and Michigan State.

"We've got to get better," Franklin said. "I think there are areas that we have to be cleaner. We have to play for four quarters. We can't come out and play really well in the first quarter and then in the fourth quarter, but kind of stall in the second or third quarter.

"We're trying to get better every single day and every single week in all phases. We can get better, and we're going to need to as the season goes on, there's no doubt about it."

The Lions rank third in the Football Bowl Subdivision in scoring defense (9.4 points per game) and 14th in scoring offense (41.4). They also rank in the top 15 in total defense, pass efficiency defense, tackles for loss, fewest penalties, net punting, kickoff returns and punt returns.

The one area Franklin touted Tuesday was Penn State's plus-9 turnover margin, which ranks fourth.

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"We're doing a great job of protecting the football on offense and creating turnovers on defense," he said. "It's one of the better things we're doing. We all realize how impactful that is to winning."

But Franklin also pointed out a couple of weaknesses.

Penn State ranks 58th in the nation in rushing, even with Saquon Barkley in the backfield. The Lions are 77th in sacks allowed after Indiana dropped Trace McSorley five times last week.

"I think the biggest thing (for the offensive linemen) is finishing," Franklin said. "We're in good position for the most part. Our fundamentals and techniques have been good.

"We need to finish blocks from an aggressive demeanor. That's the next step for us. Let's create a little bit more space."

Kicker Tyler Davis has made just 5-of-11 field goal attempts after he was nearly perfect last season.

"It just needs to be a gradual improvement each day," Franklin said. "If we can just get these weaknesses a little bit better, we've got enough strengths that we're going to be difficult to deal with."

This article is written by Rich Scarcella from Reading Eagle, Pa. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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