STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Villanova brought leaf blowers to practice last week, using them to simulate the crowd noise they expected to hear at Beaver Stadium. Asked Saturday about Penn State's crowd, Villanova quarterback Daniel Smith didn't mince words.
"I thought the leaf blowers were louder," he said.
They can't all be White Outs vs. SEC opponents in which your left tackle collapses half an offensive line to produce a vital rushing touchdown. Sometimes your mind wanders, your crowd allows it and your opponent notices — and takes advantage.
Penn State's 38-17 victory over Villanova did very little to advance its cause as a College Football Playoff contender. Sure, Sean Clifford became the first Penn State quarterback to throw for 400 yards at Beaver Stadium, receivers Parker Washington and Jahan Dotson combined for 265 yards and three touchdowns and the first-team defense allowed three points.
But Penn State coach James Franklin had frustration in his voice Saturday afternoon regarding his run game (again), elements of pass protection and the backup defensive players who allowed two touchdowns.
Franklin tied that frustration to a Wednesday practice that he called substandard. The head coach also hinted (more than hinted, actually) that his sixth-ranked Lions (4-0) are basking too much in their early season praise.
"I feel like our guys a little bit were enjoying people patting them on the back," Franklin said. "We talked about it all week long, and I don’t know if we had the same edge today that we’ve had the previous three weeks. But we found a way to get a win."
Later, Franklin drew a metaphorical comparison between his team and his refrigerator.
"I think they are reading articles, and we'll make sure that there's no leftovers of that come Sunday," he said. "I'll make sure that we clear all those things out of the fridge."
Franklin's going to start with the run game, which has been unremarkable for three of Penn State's first four games. The Lions entered the game ranked 13th in the Big Ten (and 101st nationally) in rushing offense and did not leave in better shape.
They gained 80 yards on 34 carries, averaging 2.4 carry. They went 0-for-3 on third-down plays of 1-4 yards. On one of those, Villanova linebacker Amin Black shot through a gap to make a startling tackle for loss of John Lovett on 3rd-and-2.
Villanova, an FCS team, made eight tackles for loss, including three sacks. Penn State's four running backs looked tentative, no one blocked very well in open space, and the offensive line got knocked off the ball too often.
In four games this season, Penn State has topped 100 yards rushing just once (240 vs. Ball State). The receiver screens and swing passes to backs have compensated for the run-game deficiencies, but one trait largely has been absent from Penn State's offense: the ability to power through an opposing front seven with consistency and authority.
"You’ve got to run the ball between the tackles and be physical, and you've got to run the ball on the perimeter," Franklin said. "I think we’ve done a better job of mixing the outside zone, and that has helped us. We’ve usually been a pretty good gap-scheme team, but we’re not doing that right now. I didn’t think we played as well at the tight end position, especially in the running game, as we have in the past. But now, ... Tuesday and Wednesday will be physical days, and they need to be heavy emphasis on running the ball."
Clifford noticed the lapses as well. As a three-time team captain, he's pretty attuned to his team's body language and temperature, particularly on offense. Clifford didn't like what he saw Wednesday.
"After Wednesday we had kind of a bad feeling," Clifford said. "Not bad like we were going to lose or play badly, but it wasn't up to our standard. ... You can't just let a whole day slip away, and I thought we did that Wednesday, and I think it honestly reflected a lot in this game."
Clifford called the offense "stagnant" at times, which was true. Penn State ran 65 offensive plays for 509 yards. Seven of those were passing plays that went for 332 yards (and four touchdowns). As Villanova coach Mark Ferrante said, "We got big-played to death."
KeAndre Lambert-Smith turned a broken-looking play into an 83-yard touchdown reception. Jahan Dotson scored for the sixth consecutive game (a 52-yarder on the Lions' first offensive play). Parker Washington outran Villanova's secondary for receptions 67 and 52 yards.
Which is great. Coordinator Mike Yurcich builds his offense around big plays. But on their remaining 58 offensive snaps, the Lions managed just 177 yards, barely above 3 per play.
The Lions have speed, no doubt, but is it enough to compensate for a run game that averaged 1.1 yards per carry in the first half?
There was more. The Lions benefitted from playing a big group of defenders in the fourth quarter. But Villanova managed to score two touchdowns against that group, which Franklin found alarming.
"When they go in, they have to live up to the standard, and we did not do that today with our depth guys and with our backup guys," he said.
Franklin wasn't terribly critical with the team immediately after the game. "I would never want to go in a locker room after a win and it doesn’t feel like a win," he said. But that will change.
"We're going to coach hard on Sunday, and the meetings will be hard on Sunday," Franklin said. "If we have the team that I think we do, then they want that."