After A Magical Month, James Franklin Proved He Can Lead Penn State To New Heights
Few people have been more critical of James Franklin during his tenure at Penn State than I have. But now, it’s time for me to be quiet.
James Franklin came to Penn State about two and a half years ago, bringing along plenty of hype and confidence in the process. In his first press conference he told everyone he was going to dominate the state before implementing his “Unrivaled” philosophy. He followed through on his “Dominate the State” philosophy by putting together a solid recruiting class after arriving a mere month before signing day.
Franklin carried that hype and momentum into the regular season to pick up fan support, and in the process he made a few unrealistic expectations for the team. Of course, we all know how that season ended: the Nittany Lions went 7-5, with embarrassing losses to Northwestern, Michigan, Illinois, Maryland, and nearly Rutgers. Reality hit the fan base, and everyone remembered that the Nittany Lions were hindered by the worst sanctions levied in NCAA history. Of course, Franklin cited those sanctions quite frequently as an excuse for the lackluster performances on the field. Still, there was a decent amount of optimism surrounding the program considering how well Franklin could sell Penn State.
That optimism intensified when Franklin put together a fantastic recruiting class in 2015, including highly ranked recruits like Saquon Barkley, Irvin Charles, Juwan Johnson, and John Reid. However, we all know what happened when that optimism finally materialized. With one of the best running backs in the Big Ten, a great quarterback, and an outstanding defense, Penn State managed only seven regular season wins again with horrendous losses to Michigan State, Ohio State, and Temple. After losses to Michigan and Northwestern in November, serious questions were raised about Franklin’s coaching, especially about his clock management and decisions to kick a field goal on a fourth down from the one-yard line.
After the 2015 season, Franklin was a combined 0-6 against Michigan, MIchigan State, and Ohio State, and mustered up a dreadful 0-5 record against ranked teams. Many irrational fans were calling for his head already, and more rational ones believed that 2016 would be his do-or-die year since he was armed with a completely full arsenal of scholarships. The sanctions could no longer be used as an excuse; Franklin had to prove himself next year or many fans and alumni would want him gone. I knew that one couldn’t attribute all the team’s failures to Franklin, but what bothered me is that the team’s successes (what little there was) couldn’t be attributed to Franklin either. Those successes came by way of Christian Hackenberg, Saquon Barkley, and a ferocious defense.
Before this season, the pattern repeated itself: Franklin brought in a new, exciting offensive coordinator in Joe Moorhead who would turn things around. He signed top recruits, sold his program, and fans believed something might actually be different. The blowout loss to Michigan seemed like rock bottom and there was no real hope that Franklin would get his signature win this season, let alone change the direction of the program.
Well last week, he got it, and things are now different in 2016. I’m confident with James Franklin as Penn State’s head football coach. I haven’t uttered those words since 2014, but he proved to me that he can be “the guy.” He’s shown what he’s capable of during the program’s magical past month. Franklin made me eat my words, and I couldn’t be happier to be wrong.
So what changed this year? Simply put, quite a bit. Franklin compiles together a great recruiting class every year, but doesn’t always implement it immediately. That changed this year. Instead of sticking with one fringe starter like Derek Dowrey, Franklin didn’t hesitate to burn freshman Connor McGovern’s redshirt and insert McGovern into the starting right guard spot where his presence was instantly felt. He also put redshirt freshman Ryan Bates at left guard which helped transform the offensive line from a liability into a strength.
Franklin has proved that he knows how to adjust his gameplan to take advantage of his opponents’ weaknesses. That hasn’t been more apparent than during last weekend’s magical upset of Ohio State. Franklin shut down the Buckeye offense with a relentless defense and an offense that was able to capitalize on some of Ohio State’s missteps. Against Minnesota, when the defense stacked the box, Franklin put his trust in McSorley and set him loose for 335 yards to score before winning the game in overtime. We didn’t see much adjustment from Franklin the past few years — most notably during Christian Hackenberg’s days as a Nittany Lion — but this year he’s adjusting his team to the circumstances, something that’s been crucial to the team’s success.
Franklin holds the same values that coach Paterno held, and he’s maintained the same expectations for his team. When you’re in trouble with the law, you can’t play football. If you skip class, you will pay the price. This is far more important than any on-field success. Penn State is a proud program because of these off-field expectations, and knowing that these young men are students first, then athletes, makes me even more confident in Franklin.
Franklin finally got his signature win last week, and this team has a great opportunity this season. Success is right on the horizon, and it might arrive more quickly than expected.