STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Coach James Franklin was frustrated, wanting to get to the bottom of Penn State's surprising loss at Illinois last last week. Talking it out immediately was the only approach he thought would work.
The Nittany Lions' first-year coach summoned the team's captains to his office as soon as they got off the bus from the airport.
About an hour later, those frustrations had eased.
"As long as you're surrounded with really good people that care and are committed, and you can talk through it, you feel better," Franklin said. "I know they made me feel better. They gave me some perspective on some things."
What the players couldn't do was reverse the 16-14 loss, the team's fifth since opening with four straight wins.
Penn State (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten) will host No. 10 Michigan State (9-2, 6-1) on Saturday in the regular-season finale for both teams.
While Franklin didn't reveal specific conversation points on Tuesday, he did cite the team's unsuccessful penultimate drive and offensive inconsistencies that have plagued the Lions all season.
Penn State needed at least one first down to protect a 14-13 lead with 3:29 remaining, but ended up punting after three plays that netted less than 10 yards.
Illinois drove 54 yards in 100 seconds and David Reisner kicked the go-ahead, 36-yard field goal.
"We feel like we made the right decision there," Franklin said. "We want to always play to our strength and our strength has been defense all year long."
Hackenberg threw for 1,534 yards in the team's first five games; he's netted 934 yards in the past six.
Franklin labeled Hackenberg as "really, really competitive" and said the sophomore has been frustrated.
"Christian has really high standards and expectations for himself and who he wants to be and how he wants to play," Franklin said. "I think he's handled it pretty well. He was one of the guys in my office Saturday night as one of the captains talking about these things. There is nobody harder on Hack than Hack."
Hackenberg has been sacked 39 times this season and limped away from a play at Illinois.
Franklin also said the Nittany Lions must better handle adversity and be aware they are not going to play a perfect game for 60 minutes.
He maintained that his oft-maligned offensive line continues to improve, and offered a reason behind a sub-par running game and the consistent defensive pressure on Hackenberg.
"People didn't really know who and what we were going to be (in the first four games)," Franklin said. "They have seen a weakness, and now the entire defensive game plan is about attacking those things over and over and over again."
Defenses are lining up with fronts that require five individual blocks and not allowing linemen to help each other, Franklin said.
"Or they're lining up in four-down or three-down and bringing complete chaos every single play," he said.
Yet he remains optimistic.
"I think the understanding of what we're trying to do and why has improved," Franklin said. "It's the consistency and the execution that we haven't been able to do."