Centre Daily Times
PSU avoids trap game against Ball State
Blue and white lights danced around Jahan Dotson and the rest of the Penn State football team on Saturday as they walked out of the south end zone tunnel and onto the Beaver Stadium field. Above them was head coach James Franklin’s mantra for his team — emblazoned in white lettering on a navy blue background.
The mantra is oft-misconstrued and occasionally criticized, but on Saturday it was at play in the team’s win over the Ball State Cardinals.
Penn State was able to take care of business on its way to a 44-13 win against a good Ball State team thanks to a fast start and a focus on the moment at hand.
Dotson said he didn’t notice the new tunnel upgrades until they were brought up to him, but said the message above them as they run out is a crucial focus for the team week after week.
“We just know that stuff is in the back of our head,” Dotson said. “Going 1-0, every single day, every single rep that we’re out there. That’s just something that’s ingrained in us . ... We take every week with the same approach, that we want to be the best team on the field. We don’t look at our opponent any lesser than anyone that we’re facing. We did a great job of that starting out with Wisconsin, a very tough opponent, taking care of business. Then coming here at home, getting the win against Ball State.”
Earlier in the week, Franklin said he believed in the idea of
trap games but wouldn’t call the matchup with Ball State one of them.
Part of his reasoning was laid out in his explanation for how trap games happen.
“Our routine and our process is really important to me,” Franklin said on Tuesday. “That’s why we won’t talk about anything else but the game at hand. ... I do believe in trap games, if you’re sending mixed messages, if you’re inconsistent in your approach. It’s subtle things (that cause inconsistency). It’s little subtle things that you say in the press conference that the fans and the players pick up on, that your staff picks up on. It’s subtle things about your demeanor and your approach out at practice.”
Those factors weren’t an option for the Nittany Lions Saturday afternoon.
The way the team practices and how it prepares for each opponent put it in a position to find success against the Cardinals, who were so commonly called a trap game that it became increasingly unlikely that they would catch anyone by surprise.
After all, they return 21 starters and 16 superseniors — seniors who took advantage of the NCAA granting all active student-athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic — from a team that won the Mid-American Conference championship last season.
The Cardinals may have been the perfect trap for a Penn State team that just defeated a ranked Wisconsin team on the road at Camp Randall Stadium and has a looming White Out matchup against No. 25 Auburn next up on the schedule. Internally, however, that was never an option.
“I thought we practiced well,” Franklin said after the win. “Our standard of how we operate, no matter the competition — in conference, out of conference — has been pretty good. That’s a good football team. That’s the MAC returning champs . ... Give them a ton of respect. But we try to make sure we approach every opponent, week in and week out, like it’s the most important opponent that we have on our schedule all year long.”
The Nittany Lions made sure to dispel any possibility of a trap early on in Saturday’s game. They jumped on Ball State on both sides of the ball, suffocating the team’s offense and methodically walking down the field against its defense.
That type of start made it difficult for the underdog Cardinals to ever get back in the game and made it clear they were taken seriously in practice this week by Penn State.
Redshirt senior quarterback Sean Clifford said the fast start came in part because of how those practices took shape.
“Starting fast in practice, I think that was a big point of emphasis this week,” Clifford said. “Making sure that there wasn’t a period that we left on the table. Jumping on our own defense early, making sure that we talk about having a fast start. That way in a game, we can make that and execute it.”
The start led to a quick 14-0 lead and put Ball State on its heels. The Cardinals never got within two possessions and never truly had a chance to ensnare Penn State in the trap that was laid.
Instead, Penn State once again went 1-0 and continued to trudge forward on its quest to take its difficult early season schedule one step at a time.