Penn State coach James Franklin said his team was "fighting more than Auburn" last week, references to the pre-game speculation regarding him and USC and the officiating Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State defeated Auburn 28-20 in a game that Franklin said demonstrated his team's physical and mental toughness. Though he didn't mention either situation explicitly, Franklin was referring to the pre-game speculation and the in-game officiating.
In fact, Franklin finished his weekly press conference by bringing up, unasked, four specific officiating instances, each of which negatively impacted Penn State.
"I was fiery for a number of reasons last week because I felt like we were fighting more than Auburn," Franklin said Tuesday. "I’m not going to get into the details of that, but I felt like we were fighting a lot and I was happy to see our guys battle through it mentally, physically, emotionally, the whole deal. Our staff, our players, we didn’t allow anything to become a distraction."
The first potential distraction involved Franklin being mentioned last week as a potential candidate for the USC head coaching position after Clay Helton's firing. Franklin was asked about the situation twice before the game, saying he would handle it "internally."
Players received questions as well. Quarterback Sean Clifford, who played perhaps his best career game against Auburn, said, "I don't think it's anything that we need to worry about."
On Tuesday, Franklin circled back to issues regarding the SEC officiating crew that called the game. "I thought we were very resilient during the game for a lot of different reasons, which I'll let you guys get into," he said.
When no one asked about the officiating, Franklin brought it up to finish the press conference. He did not mention the fourth-down issue ("which I think was already addressed publicly with a statement," Franklin said) but did discuss the intentional grounding penalty that preceded it.
The coach also discussed three other plays, including one in which Auburn was not called for intentional grounding.
Intentional grounding on Sean Clifford
In the first quarter, Clifford threw an incomplete pass downfield that was intended for Parker Washington. The receiver was not near the ball, which Clifford attributed to miscommunication. Franklin confirmed that Tuesday.
The officials penalized Clifford for intentional grounding, then mistakenly jumped ahead to third down. Franklin explained the grounding penalty from his perspective.
"I studied that one pretty closely. That was an interesting call," Franklin said. "But I think for you to get intentional grounding from the pocket, you have to be under duress. I didn't really feel like we were under duress in this situation."
Penn State's view of the fake punt
In the third quarter, the officials ruled that Auburn stopped Penn State's PJ Mustipher for no gain on a 4th-and-1 fake punt, giving Auburn the ball at its 43-yard line. The Tigers converted the possession into a field goal, cutting Penn State's lead to 21-20.
Franklin did not mention the spot but rather Auburn's alignment on the play.
"In punting situations, in kicking situations, it is illegal to have the center covered," Franklin said. "Looking at that play and studying that play and interpreting that play, I don’t think you can cover the center on those plays. So obviously without somebody over center, I think we would have been in a much more positive situation there."
According to the NCAA rulebook, defenders within one yard of the line of scrimmage must align themselves "completely outside the frame of the body of the snapper."
Possible intentional grounding not called on Auburn
On Auburn's second-half field-goal drive, quarterback Bo Nix threw the ball away while appearing to have a foot on the left hash mark. Intentional grounding was not called. Franklin said he was told that Nix "left the pocket."
"Interpreting the rules, and trying to learn from what happens in games and educate my staff and educate myself, I think the ball was snapped from inside the hash, and the quarterback threw the ball from the hash," Franklin said. "So I would not interpret that as outside the pocket."
The personal foul on Brandon Smith
Midway through the fourth quarter, the officials flagged Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith for a late hit on Nix. The penalty gave Auburn possession in Penn State territory. The Lions later made a red-zone defensive stand to prevent a score.
"I thought Brandon was trying to pull up and hold the player up," Franklin said. "That one, I guess, could go either way. But again, I think if you’re trying to pull up on the sideline after running full speed, that’s challenging."
Franklin did not mention the targeting call against Auburn's Zakoby McClain that led to his fourth-quarter ejection. Nor did he bring up the pass interference penalty that Jahan Dotson drew on Penn State's final offensive series.
Auburn was penalized six times for 45 yards; Penn State five ties for 35 yards.
On Tuesday, Franklin said he brought up these instances to call them teaching moments.
"I just want to make sure that our staff is interpreting these things the right way," Franklin said. "It's one thing to have a feeling during the game about how a certain play plays out. It's another to go back and watch the tape and make sure we understand the rules correctly and that we’re teaching the rules correctly with our team."
Penn State hosts Villanova at noon Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Watch Franklin's comments here, courtesy of BlueWhiteIllustrated.