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JF: It's been a while, but I haven't reviewed Northwestern. Offensive player of the game was Trace [McSorley], defense was Christian [Campbell] and Grant Haley. Special teams, it was Blake Gillikin, who is really playing well for us right now.
Some things that I think overall have been storylines for the year, especially statistically for us right now, we're number one in scoring defense nationally, number two in the turnover margin nationally, which I think we all know the importance of that, number three in drive/start average nationally, number eight in penalties per game nationally, and number 13 in big plays on offense nationally. Some pretty good numbers there that I think really kind of illustrate maybe in detail and specifics some of the things that's going on this season.
Getting into Michigan, obviously a great school, great tradition, great history. Very talented head coach, staff and players. It's going to be a real challenge for us. There's no doubt about it.
Offensively, they're what I would describe as a traditional Big Ten offense, where they're going to try to run the ball down your throat, play-action pass. Very talented, very skilled. Mason Cole - feels like he's been playing there forever - I think is going to end up being a high draft choice, offensive lineman for them.
Expect a lot of gap schemes, power, counter, things like that. But they're a traditional Big Ten offense. It's going to be a challenge. I think we all know Coach Harbaugh runs the offense for them.
Then defensively, Don Brown was the defensive coordinator at Maryland; I was the offensive coordinator [at Maryland]. I know Don very well. I think one of the better defensive coordinators in the country. You look at his production and success, his time at Boston College, now at Michigan. Very talented.
I think Maurice Hurst, their defensive tackle from Massachusetts, on film looks like a first-rounder. I would describe Don as a greedy defensive coordinator. What I mean by that is, most defensive coordinators are going to try to take something away, but when they take something away, they're giving you something.
For example, most defensive coordinators are going to give you the wide field throws. They're going to say a college quarterback can't consistently make the wide field throw, even versus off coverage. Don doesn't believe in that. Don is going to overload the box. A lot of guys are going to be on the line of scrimmage in blitz demeanor. The defensive backs are going to be pressed pretty much across the board. They're going to try to take your run game away. They're going to take all the easy throws away. It's going to be press coverage, man coverage. Our guys are going to have to create space with the routes, and they're going to have to make contested catches. That's how he plays.
The other thing they do a great job of, they don't typically have to cover very long because he's coming after you. High percentage of pressure; 62 percent pressure overall, 66 percent on normal downs, 63 percent on third down. They're a huge pressure team. So that's part of it, as well.
Obviously they have the talent to back it up. A lot of people would describe it as a high-risk, high-reward defense. When you've been the number one defense in the country as many times as he's been, I would say it's high-reward.
Then special teams, they're doing a really good job on special teams. Obviously a name, Quinn Nordin, that we all know is kicking the ball really well for them. I'm happy for him and his family. Doing a great job. Has made I think 85 percent of his field goals, a couple over 50 yards. He’s doing a great job there.
We're excited. Obviously it's going to be a great environment. I think people realize the only thing I like more than Christmas is a white-out football game. I'm jacked up like I am every year because the environment is special. I think Beaver Stadium on a normal game day is a top-five atmosphere. I think a white-out game day is something I think you don't really understand unless you can come experience it for yourself.
I love standing at that tunnel, feeling the energy and electricity in the stadium, then running out. After that, you really don't kind of realize it again until the game's over.
I want to thank our fans. I want to thank the community. It's going to be special. Then my message for the team this week is, they've earned these things. These things are nice. The rankings are nice. The fact that ESPN and College Game Day is coming is nice. The fact that this is a white-out is nice. At the end of the day none of those things matter. It's about our preparation. A lot of times, I think the most important job of a head coach, in my opinion, is to eliminate distractions. If not handled right, that's what these can be. We're going to stick to our routine and our SOP, kind of go from there.
Q. How much did the bye week benefit your team and how much time did you spend on Michigan preparation?
JF: I think it was really good. We were able to have our Sunday practice, which was good, which is very similar to what we normally do. Monday we spent all day self-scouting. We self-scout every week, but it's probably for an hour or two. We spent a whole day on self-scout, not only the offense looking at themselves and the defense, but across the ball. We had our defense break down our offense and our offense break down our defense. That was really valuable.
Tuesday was obviously to get a head start on Michigan from a planning perspective. Tuesday practice for us was a combination of a little bit of a head start. Excuse me, that's not fair. Tuesday was a developmental practice. Predominantly young guy development, a little bit of Michigan. Really it was mostly about going back and covering some issues that we've had throughout the season. Here is how people are trying to attack our protections. Here is how people are trying to attack our defense. Here are some areas on special teams that need to get cleaned up. That's really what Tuesday was about. Then young guy scrimmages.
Wednesday was Michigan, our first day to get into Michigan, get a head start on those guys with still a balance of young guy scrimmages, still kind of resting our players as much as we possibly could. Thursday, Friday, Saturday was off for the players and recruiting for the coaches. Sunday we gained an advantage because we didn't have to go back and make the corrections on the last game. It was all Michigan for a short practice. I think you guys know our practices on Sunday are pretty short.
I'd say the coaches got a few extra days. The players got probably two days. They got Wednesday as a Michigan practice and Sunday as a Michigan practice.
Q. What are your thoughts on Maurice Hurst and Rashan Gary?
JF: I think Hurst is really fun to watch on tape. He's a really good player. He's explosive. He is quick. His get-off is what really jumps out. You watch the ball snapped, he's the first one across the line of scrimmage. They move their defensive line a lot. He uses his hands well. Very productive. Very disruptive. Went back and kind of researched him a little bit in terms of what people are saying about him. Probably a top-10 pick. It looks like that on tape. Got a lot of respect for him and his game, how he plays, the motor he has. He's an impressive guy to watch.
Rashan Gary, we all know about him. An impressive athlete. A guy who is as big as advertised, 280 pounds. Says he can run in the 45s. It looks like that on tape. A lot of time people talk about guys, it doesn't necessarily look like that when you watch. He is a really, really good athlete who flies around and plays hard.
We got a challenge. Between the combination of style of defense they play, then the athletes they're playing. A number of guys, you have Lavert Hill who is playing well for them at corner. There's a number of guys that are going to be a challenge for us.
Q. Those couple seasons you did get to spend working with Don Brown, what stood out to you beyond the X's and O's?
JF: Relentless, aggressive. A lot of different experiences which I think are really valuable. You're talking about a guy who has been a defensive coordinator for a long time, a head coach, now has gone back to being an assistant. You're talking about a guy that has worked at I-AA level, I-A level, at schools where he had built-in advantages, schools where he didn't. I think when you come from that type of background, you have to be creative to overcome some circumstances. I learned a lot from being around Don. How he ran his side of the ball, how he got his players to play, how to practice. Got a lot of respect for him. Got to know his family. Awesome wife who I hear from from time to time, so does my wife. Just a good person and a really, really good football coach who has been very successful pretty much everywhere he's been.
Don's big thing, it shows up on tape, they're going to solve their problems with aggression. That's something I remember years ago Don talking about. It still shows up on tape. His answer for the game of football is to be aggressive, be aggressive in the way he calls the game, be aggressive in how their players play. They're a big wreck-the-decision-maker, try to get to the quarterback as much as they possibly can and either sack him or make him uncomfortable in the pocket, and don't give any yards away, no free-access throws. That's what he believes. He's done a really good job.
A lot of the stuff they do is unorthodox. When you watch it on tape for short periods of time, you're trying to make sense of it. But they play aggressive, which is I think the most important thing that they do. They don't miss too many tackles.
Q. You talk a lot about Don Brown, calling him a greedy defensive coordinator. How by contrast would you describe Brent Pry as a coordinator?
JF: I think Brent has done a very good job. Very successful past history being a defensive coordinator when I hired him. Brent is your typical coaching lifer. Not only him and his family, but his father. I think Brent really understands and sees the big picture of the game, understands the motivational aspects of his players, understands morale, staff morale, player morale. Understands how to take advantage of our strengths, hide some of our weaknesses or deficiencies. I think he's a big picture football coach. He gets it.
He connects well with the players. I think the players respect and appreciate and like him, which those things are important. But he's a wealth of football knowledge and experience. He's a good person. Brent is one of my guys when I'm having difficulty with a decision. That's Dwight Galt, as you know. I'll bring those guys in. It's evolved into Terry Smith, really my whole staff. But really probably from the beginning, it's Dwight, Brent. Those guys have been tremendous resources.
I think a lot of it is because I've known them for a long time and they know me. Just a lot of value. I think one of the things that's going to be great for the fans in our stadium, and I think for people across the country that are watching the game, you're going to be watching two of the best defensive coordinators in college football, which probably doesn't get any more Big Ten than that, defensive football.
Q. Shareef Miller. The things that stand out to you most about his growth on the field, off the field since he came to Penn State, maybe what his next step in development is.
JF: I think the word that describes him the best that you just used is 'growth'. He has matured in so many ways, in so many areas. He's a lot like Saquon Barkley in a lot of ways in terms of Shareef got here and really has taken advantage of every resource and every opportunity that there was here. You're talking about a skinny kid from Philadelphia, shows up here and takes advantage of training table, takes advantage of the weight room, gets bigger and stronger. He takes advantage of all the academic support, the unbelievable professors we have on campus, is doing extremely well in that area. Is well liked and respected by his teammates and coaches.
He's a guy that has really transitioned really well. I tell the players all the time, I think a really good barometer for me is would I hire you. It's my job, by the time they leave, that I would. Shareef is one of those guys I'd hire him right now. I don't think I'm going to be able to because he's going to have other opportunities.
But I'm really proud of Shareef in so many ways that I can't even really kind of put it into words. I'm just really proud of the young man he is developing into. I know sometimes when coaches say this, everybody thinks I'm talking about football, but he's turned into a good football player and a productive football player. I think he's got a bright future at Penn State and I think he's got a bright future after that. I'm really proud of Shareef as the young man and the student that he is. I really am. He's a tremendous success story for himself, for Penn State, for college football. I can't say enough good things about him.
Q. During the bye week, did you take a look at the offensive line to maybe find some other things they're not doing quite as well as you would like? There was a change in the depth chart at right tackle. Is that because the other two guys are banged up?
JF: I knew you were going to ask about injuries. As you know, I'm going to answer about injuries.
I don't really see it as a change in the depth chart. I mean, for really the last couple weeks, we have been playing both Chasz Wright and Will Fries. I think it says 'or'. To be honest with you, I didn't even know that Will was ahead of Chasz or Chasz was ahead of Will. They're both going to play. It's not a big deal. They're both going to play. It's 'or'. I wouldn't make it out to be more than what it is.
I think I probably will decide based on how the week of practice has gone. At this point we haven't even had a practice. We'll have one today. I'll have a better idea late in the week.
But, no, again, I think Matt Limegrover does a great job with our offensive line. We got a bunch of really good players at that position that are continuing to develop. We're going to stick to our plan. We're going to take advantage of individual and fundamentals during practices, techniques, continue to emphasize them. We're going to get great one-on-one work against our defensive line that helps from a speed perspective. We're going to still call the game in ways that, again, put those guys in the best position to be successful.
But we're going to have a challenge this week. The way they play defensive football, we're going to have some challenges. That's where the mobility at 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. We also have to take some shots down the field. I get that. That also means holding onto the ball a little bit longer.
We're just going to stick to our plan and keep developing those guys and keep loving them. Got a lot of confidence in them. I think we're going to play well on Saturday, I really do.
Q. Kirk Herbstreit in an interview with Saquon Barkley, he said he finds that Penn State players, he's impressed with their comportment, their behavior. He mentioned going way back decades, Curt Warner, guys like that. What is your reaction to those comments? Is there any explanation you can see?
JF: I think it's a combination of things. I think it starts with the young men that we bring to our university. Don't get me wrong, our guys make mistakes. They're young men. No different than any other college student across the country. It starts there. Then it starts with the development. I think a lot of colleges spend time trying to develop and work on the complete student, the whole young man, the whole student-athlete that you're trying to develop, that we all take great pride in.
I will also say that I think a lot of places and a lot of people maybe give it a little bit of lip service. At the end of the day it really comes down to the wins. I really think it's a part of this community that we take a lot of pride in it. We reinforce it and talk about it all the time. I can't tell you how many times I'll be standing in line at Starbucks or Rothrock, a Dunkin Donuts on Sunday, someone will come up to me and say, Coach, really appreciate the win on Saturday, but more importantly I appreciate how the guys were in the press conference, how the guys treated my son when they saw him this summer, my daughter, all those types of things.
In this crazy game of college football that we've all decided to be a part of, probably now more so than ever, you know, it has become about the wins and the wins only. I think in some ways Happy Valley and Penn State has had a little bit of a bubble over it. It's more than that for us. It's more than that for our fans. It's more than that for our students.
I'll tell you, three or four years ago, in my timeline it didn't necessarily feel like that. But it's more than that here, it really is. I think what we also try to do is when I get an email from a fan, from an alumni, a handwritten message from somebody, I put that in a PowerPoint presentation. We talk about small acts of kindness go a long ways. Simple home training, “yes, sir,” “no, sir,” shaking someone's hand, looking them in the eye, body language, demeanor. Those things are so, so important.
I take a lot of pride in it. It's something that was already something that I believed in. Had really nothing to do with Penn State. Then I come to Penn State and get offered a job. My values and the things that I believe in align with the university and the athletic department, the football program. It just continues.
I think probably the biggest thing is when our fans and when the people in the community, when little kids, when other people say to our players and say to our coaches, ‘winning matters here and we get it, but what's more important to us is these young men leave Penn State prepared and ready for life, are going to be good people, good fathers, good husbands, citizens.’ It's one thing when the head football coach says it. It's another thing when the fans and the alumni and the lettermen are saying it. It reinforces it.
I think that's probably where it comes from. I think Kirk Herbstreit is a graduate of another school in this conference, has been doing this for a long time, travels all over the country. I think him saying it to me, there's a lot of value in that. Kirk didn't have to say that.
I talk about studying best practice. There's nobody that has got a better perspective on college football than Kirk Herbstreit because he travels all over the country seeing it. The fact that he comes out and makes a strong statement like that about our players and our program is one of the best compliments I think we could get.
Q. A lot of people look to the Michigan game last season as a line-in-the-sand moment for Penn State. Do you look at it that way? If so, what is the biggest difference you see in the program now?
JF: Everybody wants me to say that was like the ‘ah ha’ moment. Don't get me wrong, obviously I do think that was a factor. Like I say with a lot of things, there's 25 slices in this pie. The Michigan loss last year was a factor. Development was a factor. Players taking responsibility and accountability was a factor. The coaches building relationships and chemistry with the players was a factor.
I could list out a number of things, and every single one of them is important. I think that's one of the things at this level when you're trying to be successful, I would make the argument one of the most competitive sports on the planet, is everything matters, every detail matters.
Yeah, was that loss a factor in what happened after that loss and how we moved forward, how we approached it? Yeah. But I would say every win before, our current win streak, was a factor. Every loss was a factor. We learn, we grow. You need to be constantly learning and growing. Some moments are bigger than others, I will agree with that. But you need to constantly be learning and growing.
To be honest with you, I've had that question a lot, about rankings, things like that. I don't feel any different this week than I did a month ago or a year ago. We still got a lot of areas we need to work on, we need to get better at. I wake up still going into work in the morning excited about the opportunity and the people I work with, realizing that we got a lot of things we got to get better at.
I don't make it as simplistic as a lot of people want it to be. I think there's so many factors.
Q. John O'Korn has a lot of ties and family in this area. Describe what you've seen from him on film, strengths he has.
JF: Somebody told me at one point his mom worked at the Broken Egg here in town. I don't know that, but somebody mentioned that. I don't completely know their connection to this community, but they're somewhere around here. Really the main experience I have is when we were at Vanderbilt, we played Houston in a bowl game. Obviously he's a veteran quarterback. He's been around. He's done a lot of different things. Obviously, Coach Harbaugh does a great job of coaching those guys, played the position. He's a big, strong guy. He's athletic. He is surrounded by a lot of talent.
I don't probably know his history and connections to this area as well as you. I've heard different rumors, like the one I mentioned. We're just getting ready for Michigan, and we're getting ready for what they do offensively, what they do defensively, what they do special teams-wise.
Q. When you look at the statistics from last year compared to this year, completion percentage, interception rate, all these metrics show how substantially better your secondary is this year. Why is that? How have these guys made such a collective leap? What has this done overall for your defense?
JF: Once again, I don't think it's just our secondary. I think it's our D-line. I think it's the linebackers. I think it's the fact that the guys that you mentioned have all played a lot of football here. Christian is a senior and has been playing since his freshman year. Grant is a senior, has been playing since his freshman year. Amani, his role just continues to grow every season. You're talking about a redshirt junior. You're talking about guys that have played a lot of football, have a lot of experience, confidence. Going against our wide receivers every day in practice helps them as well. We got great competition in practice every single day.
I think those guys have had a dramatic impact. But, again, to play really good defense, all three phases, D-line, linebackers, secondary, all got to be coordinated and working together.
I think a lot of it is experience. They always had the raw material to work with in terms of intelligence and body time and quickness and strength and power and explosion, things like that. But they played a lot of reps. With reps comes experience, and with experience comes confidence. That's kind of where we're at
Q. You've talked a lot about your defense today. I know you've said in the recent pass gang tackling is one of the things that's stood out to you. How much of the success in that area comes from you guys coaching that up and how much of it comes from these guys having chemistry, playing fast in that regard?
JF: I think it's a little bit of both. It's no different than anything else. You emphasize it. Players go out and do it, have success with it. It kind of grows from there.
You can really show examples on tape of guys running to the ball, and even the guy that misses the first tackle, the other guys are there to make the play, there's value in that. For us to show other college players doing it, to show them NFL clips of just tremendous effort plays.
I think we're doing that at a very, very high level. I still think we can get better. I think we are routinely eight or nine guys that are running really hard to the ball, then you see kind of a change of speed, which is what we look for in the other two or three guys. They're kind of jogging on the backside, then all of a sudden the ball looks like it's going to get loose, they accelerate. They need to be doing that from the beginning. That also would make the argument that's the turnovers.
Think about how many times last year the ball was on the ground as a fumble and we didn't come up with it. This year we're coming up with those fumbles because we got more people around the ball. If you're around the ball, good things are going to happen, that's interceptions with tipped passes, fumbles, and that could be tackling. That's finishing off a tackle and creating fumble. That's finishing a tackle from someone, the offensive player broke their tackle, made a miss. There's so much value in that.
I would make the argument that you can take an average defense and be a good defense just by doing that one thing. I think what we've been able to do is take a good defense and take it to that next category, whatever you call it, by doing a great job of running to the football.
Q. You mentioned patience in the running game. What does patience look like to you in the running game?
JF: Well, I guess what I'm saying is even though we're an RPO team, it's easy to just start calling more passes. You got to keep calling the RPO's that give us an option to run the ball and be us in the best situation. [Offensive coordinator] Joe [Moorhead] does a great job with that, so does [offensive line coach] Matt [Limegrover] and [running backs] Coach [Charlie] Huff as well, sticking with those things.
Again, we may call 12 RPO's in a row, and they all end up passes. Again, that's fine. I think what Saquon [Barkley] has shown is he doesn't need many touches or opportunities to make the big play. You're probably never going to look at the stat page on Sunday and Saquon has carried it 38 times for 250 yards. That's just not how we're built.
The area I would say that we've spent a lot of time talking about is eliminating the negative yardage plays. If we just eliminate those, the plays that we get tackled behind of line of scrimmage and things like that, whether that's a block getting beat, whether them doing a great job of disguising what they're doing, that will really help us. The sacks, the negative yardage plays, if we can just reduce them a little bit, I think that will help us, will keep us on schedule from a first down perspective, and it will extend drives.
It's funny, I think there's a stat out there, you know I'm constantly looking at the analytics, I think the stat is: if you get a sack during a drive, you only have a 10 percent chance of scoring. That's for your defense and that's for your offense. Probably a very similar stat when you get a tackle-for-loss for five yards or more, things like that.
It's important for a lot of different reasons. It's important for putting Saquon in situations to be successful. It's important for us to stay on schedule, to be in better third down situations and convert, which for us typically if we can get a drive going, get some explosive plays, which we do as good as anybody in the country, we got a chance to get points.
That's probably what we talked about a little bit this week, how can we improve in those areas, things that we can do to help the kids out. But once again, we got one of the best offenses in the country. We got a tremendous challenge this week against one of the best defenses in the country. Should be fun. Should be a great environment. Should be a great game to watch. There's going to be some pretty interesting chess matches going between all the coordinators.
Q. What was the best part of your bye week?
JF: I think it's probably allowing the players to just get some time off, either just to relax and be normal college students, normal 19-year-olds, the opportunity to go home and see their families. That's probably the best thing.
Then for the coaches, not the same because the end of the week when they get their time off, the coaches may be going harder ripping and running and recruiting. Matt Limegrover, Ricky Rahne didn't get back Saturday night until 1:00 in the morning, driving back from wherever they were, whatever game. State College isn't always the easiest place to get back to.
I would say probably for the coaches, we the staff met in mornings a little bit later than normal. We meet usually at 7 a.m. We pushed it back to take their kids to school, get a workout in, take your kids to school, drop them off, embarrass them like I usually try to do, screaming out the window, going and getting donuts. It's the little things. It's the simple pleasures in life, being able to spend some time with your family.
That's what I would say the bye week does, it creates those opportunities. We always talk about the players being fresh. It's also the coaches, as well. We all know, it's a grind for everybody.
Q. There was a report that you nipped in the bud right away, a tweet. What is the frustration or flattery, when your name comes up that you have to continue to address these types of things?
JF: Again, for me, it's like I mentioned earlier, it's eliminating distractions. I wasn't going to respond at all, to be honest with you. But our fans, they were wearing me out on Twitter. I think our players were perfectly fine. Our coaches were perfectly fine. I just wanted everybody to stop talking about it and let's start talking about Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, Michigan, not the white-out, not the rankings, not last year's Big Ten championship, not any of these other things. I want to keep our team focused and keep our routine the same.
As we all know, there's a lot of different reasons for these things coming up. I think the biggest thing is distractions.
Q. I just wondered if it upset you because you came out right away and dismissed it?
JF: I don't think I did come out right away. I think it was at least 24 if not 48 hours before I responded. But I appreciate you checking on my emotional well-being. I'm in a good place. I'm happy. My family's happy. I'm worried about the team and keeping our routine and our SOP consistent, not allowing other things or other people to cause distractions for us.
I'm in a great place. I'm down about 10 pounds. I've been working out. I've been drinking these green smoothies. I feel good. I've been walking on Sundays and Mondays. I'm doing good.
Q. Can you address your place kicking situation? Has that changed at all, personnel? Where do you see that right now?
JF: I think we all saw we had one of the best place kickers in the country last year. We got to get a few kinks worked out with our protection, with our holding, with our snapping, with our kicking. Again, it's a little bit of all those things. 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. We're there to support him every step of the way.
I think the locker room feels exactly the same way. I know Tyler does, so, again, no different than the questions about the O-line, we're going to keep working at it, keep loving those guys up, keep getting them ready. Tyler will finish this year on a real high note. Going to win some games for us.
Q. What is your most vivid memory of the Michigan game last year? Is that game something you'll discuss much with your team over the course of this week?
JF: Yeah, again, I know that's like the storyline. Everybody wants to talk about the Michigan game last year. Between this press conference and the stuff that I do before I come in here, phone calls, things like that.
As you guys know, I'm like a live-in-the-present guy. There's experiences we gained from last year. There's confidence we gained from last year. There's lessons that we learned from last year. But no different than last year's success that we had, we were going to have to rebuild this team from the ground up, and we're doing that. We're in the process of doing that right now.
I really don't think last season's game has a whole lot to do with this Saturday's game. I don't think past historical records have a lot of factor into this game Saturday. What we've got to do is prepare like crazy for a team, a university, a program we have tremendous respect for, do the things that we need to do to make sure our team is ready to go out and play on Saturday, stick with our routine as you guys know I believe in strongly.