James Franklin’s Been Talking The Talk, But Can’t Walk The Walk Against Northwestern
Here we are again. Penn State, after storming back from a first half double-digit deficit, put itself in position to seal the deal and leave with a commanding home victory. But yet again, coaching mishaps in the game’s final two minutes sent the Nittany Lions back to State College without a victory.
That’s not to say this is all on the coaching staff. After the fateful wildcat attempt on third and one that resulted in a possession change, Grant Haley could’ve sealed the deal with an acrobatic interception. Instead, the ball careened to the turf, and Haley was torched by a deep pass on the ensuing play. Mistakes were made on the field, and Northwestern’s final drive was a commendable effort. These are all things that can’t be controlled by the coaching staff.
The game clock is a different story.
Northwestern started its final drive on its own 46 yard line with 2:13 remaining in the game. James Franklin had all three timeouts in his back pocket to use at his disposal. He called his first timeout with 22 seconds left. Nothing that transpired in that span of time justifies holding onto three timeouts like that, especially when it’s painfully obvious what the opposing team is attempting to do. Pat Fitzgerald wasn’t trying to score a touchdown, he was trying to get his offense in position to kick a game-winning field goal. He opted to throw the ball four times: twice after a momentum-killing facemask penalty, once on third and 15 at Grant Haley’s expence, and once more in a final attempt to take a shot downfield. Once his offense reached the 36 yard line at the 1:40 mark, Fitzgerald switched gears, opting to chew clock with his featured running back.
Franklin should’ve instantly started calling timeouts, because it should’ve been clear what was about to unfold. Franklin’s had success in his life coaching college football — he’s not stupid. To assume that Fitzgerald would’ve called anything other than a run is simply preposterous. Franklin held onto his timeouts, watching the game clock slowly bleed out as Justin Jackson continued to pound away at his front seven. He called his first timeout well after the damage was inflicted. Northwestern comfortably sat on the 24 yard line, well within kicker Jack Mitchell’s range. Jackson eventually pushed the Wildcats to the 18 yard line, setting up Mitchell for a game-winning chip shot.
What was Franklin’s response to questions of clock management after the game?
“I should’ve burned a timeout there. I should’ve burned a timeout right away.” Franklin said.
Oops. My bad.
For a coach getting paid more than $4 million per season, “my fault” isn’t going to cut it. I’m not a head coach. Hell, I’ve never coached a game at any level at any point in my life. What I do have, however, is common sense. I’ve tried to think of what to say, and I’ve attempted to find a way to vocalize my frustration. But I’ve come up with nothing. All I can ask is, “what were you thinking?” The entire stadium knew that Northwestern wasn’t throwing the football. The only logical move was to get the kicker in position for a field goal. Again, why not pressure the opposition by stopping the clock?
This marks the third time James Franklin has blown a lead in the final minute during his tenure, and adds to the notion that while Franklin might be a world-class recruiter, faults in his coaching philosophies are too glaring to ignore.
The season is far from over. At 7-3, Penn State is in a much better position than where it was in 2014, but knowing that this loss was at least somewhat avoidable makes it an even harder pill to swallow.
But life will go on. Franklin will brush this loss aside and “focus on next week,” just as any coach should. But at what point does “I’m sorry” become just another empty excuse? Will it take another blown fourth quarter lead?
For the program’s sake, I hope the staff learns from this. But history has an unfortunate way of repeating itself.