For Franklin, A Complex Past, Present and Future
The clamoring could be heard from Ann Arbor to State College, its tone negative and agitated. In the upper corner of Michigan Stadium, life-long Nittany Lion fans reminisced about the old days, when Penn State would be the one running through opponents. Back on campus, students wondered whether they would ever see their school compete at a national level. These thoughts are warranted after your team loses 49-10, regardless of the opponent. After all, this was supposed to be a season of improvements. A new offensive coordinator would breathe fresh air into a unit that was pedestrian at best over the past two seasons. An improved offensive line and a mobile quarterback gave a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, an elite group of skill position players would go wild. There were certainly some question marks coming in, most notably the loss of three NFL-caliber defensive linemen and a shallow group of linebackers. Nonetheless, ten wins was cited as a possibility, with eight seeming to be a near-definite. Now, four games into the season, there is a very real chance that Penn State does not make a bowl game. With all that has gone wrong this year, as well as the previous two, one man lies at the center of it all: James Franklin. The fan base seems split between moving on to make Les Miles or Tom Herman the highest-paid coach in college football and allowing Franklin to prove his worth for another season or two. Yet, like everything in life, the situation is not black and white.
It all started in early 2014 during one of Franklin’s first press conferences. Not only did he promise to restore the program to prominence, he emphasized that Penn State would dominate the state of Pennsylvania and the region as a whole. While those statements were intended to be about recruiting, fans clung to the words and took them as a sign that once again, Penn State would run the northeast, both on and off the field. That’s a lot of pressure for a new head coach walking into a program that was smothered with NCAA sanctions.
The success came first. Franklin, regarded as one of the nation’s top recruiters, hauled in an impressive class considering the program’s situation. The momentum translated to the field as well, with the Nittany Lions starting off the 2014 season 4-0, including a walk-off win over UCF in Ireland and an electrifying victory in a hostile environment against Rutgers. Then, the wheels came off. A sobering 29-6 homecoming drubbing at the hands of Northwestern tampered expectations. A controversial call prevented Penn State from their fourth consecutive win over Michigan. A few more questionable calls marred the near-upset of Ohio State in double overtime. Perhaps most demoralizing was the one-point loss at home to Maryland, one of the schools who take great offense of Franklin’s “Dominate the Region” mantra. The season was salvaged by an overtime win over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. Despite the struggles, fans pinned the 7-6 record on the sanctions.
2015 was more of the same, possibly even worse. The season kicked off with an embarrassing blowout loss to Temple. More lopsided losses to Michigan, Ohio State, and Michigan State came throughout the season. Another 7-6 campaign, with the only bright spot being the 28-3 ending of the “rivalry” with Rutgers, made some fans, and the media, reconsider if Franklin is the right guy.
That brings us to today. Following a loss against Pitt and a 39-point defeat to Michigan, James Franklin is under pressure, whether Athletic Director Sandy Barbour admits it or not. The next two weeks will dictate how this season goes; beat Minnesota and Maryland and all is okay, but lose to both and the pitchforks will come out. For many, they already have.
Remember Franklin’s botching of the end of last year’s Northwestern game when he didn’t know how to call timeout? How about his 1-2 record versus in-state opponent? Just last week, Franklin elected to kick a field goal down 28-0 even after burning timeout. He also elected to punt on a fourth and one later in the game from around mid-field. Even more troubling from that game was his non-challenge of Saquon Barkley’s potential touchdown catch and not fighting for linebacker Brandon Smith while or after he was ejected for targeting. Not to mention, he’s never beaten a ranked opponent (or a team who won more than eight games, for that matter) during his time at Penn State and Vanderbilt. Plus, Franklin is currently 0-7 (and likely to be 0-9 by the end of the season) versus the big three of Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. Put it all together, and one starts to realize that maybe James Franklin isn’t as good as advertised. Maybe it is time for change at the helm, like many, including me immediately after the Michigan disaster, believe. Maybe James Franklin’s time in Happy Valley is coming to end. Or maybe, it’s just getting started.
56 freshmen. Only 12 seniors. The second-youngest roster in the nation. Injuries to four starting defenders, including all three linebackers. An offensive line with two converted defensive tackles. A new offensive and defensive coordinator. A first-year quarterback. The reasons (or excuses) go on. That’s the situation that James Franklin is dealing with right now. Was a three-point loss to an experienced and talented Pitt side in their biggest game in recent history that bad of a defeat? Not really. Sure, a 39-point loss to Michigan is bad, but it was almost to be expected given the situation and talent gap.
Believe it or not, there are positives under Franklin. He’s recruited multiple top-20 classes and holds the commitment of one of the top 2018 prospects in Micah Parsons. Pennsylvania’s top recruits are once again coming to Happy Valley. Penn State’s special teams units are playing at the highest level in recent history. It looks like the hiring of Joe Moorhead was a good one, as the offense has scored over 30 points in three of the first four games. He avenged losses to Temple and Maryland, while defeating Rutgers twice, three schools trying to pounce on Penn State’s drop off. Plus, the young guys who are playing now are developing before our eyes and will continue to improve down the line.
The verdict on James Franklin won’t be in until at least the end of this season, and likely next season. He must perform in 2017 in order to keep his job, but for now small improvements and a bowl game are the keys for this year. Franklin’s job is safe at the moment, as it should be, but the flame is lit and the seat is starting to get warmer. So unless Les Miles flies to State College tomorrow (sans Cam Cameron) begging for a job, build up some patience with Franklin. The results may surprise you.
Jonathan Gross is a sophomore double-majoring in broadcast journalism and international politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter