Reconfigured season places Penn State in the Big Ten fire immediately

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Through James Franklin’s first six seasons, Penn State eased into its schedule playing 18 nonconference opponents, most of whom did not present the same challenges found in the Big Ten.

Nothing unusual about that.

In a typical season, and this one certainly does not qualify, many Power 5 schools employed the same formula to trigger their seasons.

Penn State was 16-2 in those games, losing only to Temple in 2015 and Pitt in ’16. Pitt (four times) was the only Power 5 opponent.

This season, when Big Ten schools feel fortunate to play anyone in the midst of a covid-19 pandemic, No. 9 Penn State opens on the road Oct. 24 at conference foe Indiana, followed by No. 6 Ohio State on Oct. 31 at Beaver Stadium. There’s a good chance only a small fraction of the 106,572 seats will be filled, and perhaps most of those people will be players’ parents.

Franklin mastered the obvious when he told reporters on a conference call Wednesday night, “It’s different. There are going to be a lot of things that are different. These are all things we are going to have to get used to, kind of the new normal.”

Franklin might have liked more time to prepare for Ohio State — it was the 11th game last season — but Penn State has the luxury of a seasoned hand at quarterback.

Sean Clifford, a redshirt junior who’s been in the program since 2017, threw for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns in 12 games last season. Franklin said there’s room for improvement in Clifford’s game, but no serious weakness that needs removed.

“Some quarterbacks have a glaring weakness in one area,” Franklin said. “For Sean, it’s just continuing to grow in the total development a little better in each area. That naturally comes with age and maturity and experience.”

Through quarantine and the stop-and-start nature of Penn State’s offseason, Clifford has built good rapport with new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca and his largely inexperienced pass catchers, Franklin said.

“That’s a challenge,” Franklin said, “because with us not having a bunch of production returning at the wide receiver positions, that typically would have been something we really emphasized over the summer with the throwing sessions.

“Not having spring ball, not having the traditional summer workouts, those were areas that we knew we needed to be ready for.”

Franklin is not anticipating nor willing to accept a slow start to the season, but he did say, “It’s one expectation for Week 1. It’s a different expectation for Week 4.”

Tight ends coach Tyler Bowen understands the disjointed nature of the offseason, but he’s hopeful it won’t show on the field when the games begin.

“We had a lot of time to install (the offense) mentally and digest it and be able to put it together in their minds,” he said. “Now comes the mad race of getting those physical reps. It’s one thing to understand it and digest it. It’s another thing to go on the field and do it.

“We won’t know (the effects of the offseason) until we go play. I’m very hopeful that it won’t affect it at all.

“We have had ample opportunities to get on the field. You’re gaining some of the spring ball practices back through the skill instruction (prior to training camp), maybe not as physical in nature, but they were able to get time on the field and sharpen their tools.”

Locker room leadership may be more important this season, and Bowen believes senior tight end Pat Freiermuth will set the proper example.

“The No. 1 thing that sticks out to me is his emotional maturity,” Bowen said. “His ability to take the game one play at a time and live in the moment.

“Be present, be where his feet are and be able to accomplish tasks over and over and over.”

Bowen called Freiermuth “one of the rare guys who loves all of the offseason just as much as he does the game.

“Because he understands those things are going to prepare him to play the game well.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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