James Franklin’s status as an star program builder is secure. It may be another 50 years before someone wins like he did at Vanderbilt. And the way he has elevated Penn State back into the desired “Blue Chip Ratio” — the 15 or so teams in a given season that have recruited well enough to win a national title — just years after sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal has been impressive.

But in terms of being a great coach, days like Saturday are red meat for critics who believe he’ll never be able to make the transition from merely being a great recruiter to being in the same conversation as college football’s top coaches — guys like Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney and Urban Meyer.

Penn State seemed all but assured of leaving Bloomington with a win. In fact, its win probability was at 99.9 precent after Indiana turned the ball over on downs with 1:47 left at its own 14-yard line. The Nittany Lions couldn’t just kneel to run out the clock, as Indiana had a timeout, but all they needed was one first down and the game was over.

Instead, Penn State did about the only thing it could have done to give the Hoosiers a legitimate chance at winning — score. Allowing a TD was Indiana’s only real play, since getting a few stops and forcing a field goal would have left them about 20 seconds to go 75 yards without a timeout. This way, they had 1:42 and a timeout to get 75 yards.

As a head coach, why wasn’t Franklin prepared to counter that move? How can he let his team take the field and not know the situation?

Franklin should have been hammering the point home on the sideline — don’t go out of bounds and don’t score! He should have warned them, “Indiana may part the Red Sea, but don’t take the bait.” Then Sean Clifford and the offensive line should have been reinforcing that in the huddle. It isn’t a foreign concept; Todd Gurley has intentionally gone down just short of the goal line at the end of games in the NFL several times. Maybe Franklin did tell Ford, but the responsibility falls on the head coach to make sure a 20-year-old kid does the right thing — or get someone in the game who will. There were no fans in the stands, and therefore no excuse for miscommunication.

On the flip side, Tom Allen’s players knew the situation. Indiana defenders backed off and offered no resistance at all. In fact, Indiana defensive back Bryant Fitzgerald started chasing Ford and was going to push him into the end zone if he started to slow down. Several Indiana players raised their arms in triumph as Ford crossed the goal line, while Ford looked dumbfounded. One team was prepared, and one wasn’t.

Penn State had another golden opportunity at the end of regulation when Indiana’s kicker botched a squib kick, setting up the Nittany Lions at Indiana’s 49-yard line. Penn State eventually had 3rd-and-1 with 8 seconds left from Indiana’s 40. Franklin could have elected to do a QB sneak for a yard or 2, after which the clock would have stopped on the 1st down and Penn State could have spiked the ball and given his kicker a chance. Instead, Penn State attempted a 57-yard field goal that probably would have been good from 55 yards.

Franklin’s late-game blunders have become part of his brand. We’ll call him the Big Ten’s version of Kirby Smart — an elite recruiter but someone who can’t get out of his own way. He ignored Saquon Barkley during a tie game of an eventual loss to Michigan State in 2017. He ran the ball on 4th-and-5 down 1 to end the game against Ohio State in 2018. And he took the ball out of Trace McSorley’s hands on a potential game-winning drive in the Citrus Bowl loss to Kentucky in 2019.

And yet, there is a perception that Franklin is a great coach. At this point and until he proves otherwise, it’s important to make a distinction: Franklin wins games (he is 56-24 at Penn State) because he brings great players into his program, not because he is a master tactician. Building a program is obviously part of being a great coach, but so are properly managing in-game situations. Franklin has repeatedly fallen short in the latter area, and now the Nittany Lions are staring at an 0-2 start and essentially being eliminated from the College Football Playoff race after playing Ohio State on Saturday.

If you think this is all being too hard on a coach who isn’t the one actually playing, look at what Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel did last week against the Texans. He knew the Texans were going to get a 1st down on 2nd-and-1, so he took a 12-men-on-the-field penalty to give them the 1st down and stop the clock, thus saving his team about 40 seconds. The Titans wound up tying the game with 4 seconds left in regulation and winning in overtime.

Look, Franklin has had terrible luck this season. He had an insanely talented roster, but the best defensive player in the country (Micah Parsons) opted out, one of the top running backs in the country (Journey Brown) is likely out for the season and his replacement (Noah Cain) left in the 1st quarter.

But this is about maximizing your team’s opportunity to win and putting your players in the best possible situations. Franklin doesn’t do that often enough, and it’s come back to hurt Penn State in big moments.

Now what for Indiana?

Indiana finally got that breakthrough win it was looking for, and it was certainly unlikely. And I’m not talking about Indiana’s approximate 0.1 percent chance of winning when it turned the ball over on downs with 1:47 left. Did you think it was possible to win a game in which you were out-gained 488-211 and only had the ball for 19:35?

Even when Penn State inexplicably scored, the Hoosiers still seemed to have little chance, as Indiana had 46 second-half yards to that point. It wound up being Indiana’s lowest yardage total in a win since only totaling 198 against Oregon in 2004.

Indiana’s offensive ineptitude was surprising considering this was the No. 3 offense in the Big Ten last season, and so many of those key contributors were back. But before that final drive in regulation, Michael Penix Jr. was wildly inaccurate. It was his worst game as a starter, as he was just 19 of 36 for 170 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT.

But no one will remember anything except the way Penix rallied Indiana down the field with the game on the line to force overtime. And of course, this.

So what are Indiana’s chances in the East race? Oddly enough, 5 of Indiana’s 7 remaining opponents won, and they all looked very good in doing so: Rutgers, Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Purdue. Still, Indiana is probably eyeing 4-4 at the absolute worst and probably 5-3 if it wins the games it will be favored in. Tom Allen’s program continues to rise.

Year 2 under Josh Gattis

Michigan looked like a different team in its opener at Minnesota, as it seemed to play with a different kind of tempo. Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis seems to finally have the personnel he wants in order to accomplish his “speed in space” mantra.

It’s interesting to compare Michigan’s offense this year to last year. The Wolverines have gone from guys like 6-foot-4 Nico Collins, 6-3 Tarik Black and 6-2 Donovan Peoples Jones to 5-9 Giles Jackson, 5-10 AJ Henning and 6-0 Roman Wilson.

The biggest reason for optimism is that Joe Milton looked very comfortable in his first start. His numbers weren’t overly impressive, but the way he carried himself was. He was 15-of-22 for 225 yards and a TD, plus 52 rushing yards and a TD on 8 attempts. Some of his best throws were incomplete, too, as Erick All dropped a walk-in TD on a ball over the middle. Then there was this throw moving to his left that Jackson almost came down with.

Michigan seems to have a clear focus as to what it wants to do. It gave its 4 running backs — Hassan Haskins, Zach Charbonnet, Chris Evans and Blake Corum — between 4 and 6 carries. Michigan also had 9 players catch a pass, with no one catching more than 4.

Contrast that to what Michigan looked like early in the season last year. It needed to give 33 carries to a true freshman (Charbonnet) who was playing in his second career game just to beat a service academy in overtime.

Michigan is in a much better place right now, even after losing 4 starters on the offensive line and having 10 players drafted to the NFL. Defensive linemen Kwity Paye and Aidan Hutchinson look primed for big-time seasons.

Wisconsin’s identity shift

Expectations were sky high for QB Graham Mertz, and he somehow exceeded them in his first start. Looking past Mertz’s incredible debut, though, I’m wondering what kind of team the Badgers are going to be this season. Their run game, which has been their bread and butter forever, was terrible, and unless Mertz plays like Patrick Mahomes and Joe Burrow combined for 10 more games, that’s an issue. Should the Badgers be a little worried after running for just 182 yards on 54 carries (3.4 average)? That may seem like a ton of yards, but consider this: Wisconsin has had 50 or more rushing attempts in 68 games since 2000, and Friday night was the 6th-worst yardage total in those games.

It was even more puzzling considering the circumstances. Year after year, Illinois has one of the worst run defenses in the Big Ten: it was 13th in 2019, 14th in 2018 and 14th in 2017. It hasn’t finished better than 11th in that category since 2011. And year after year, Wisconsin has one of the best rushing offenses in the B1G, finishing outside the top 3 just once since 2009. This should have been a mismatch of epic proportions. What happens when Wisconsin plays a good run defense?

We knew Wisconsin wouldn’t be as good on the ground as it has been in recent years without Jonathan Taylor. Duh. But Wisconsin always has the next back ready to put up huge numbers behind its talented offensive line.

That was not the case Friday night, even though Illinois mostly played without its best defender, Jake Hansen. Wisconsin didn’t have a run longer than 13 yards. Through 3 quarters, the Badgers totaled only 85 yards on 34 carries (2.5 average). Illinois may have stacked the box, but Wisconsin running backs had no juice even in the open field. Nakia Watson (19 carries, 62 yards) and Isaac Guerendo (11 carries, 36 yards) were uninspiring. Garrett Groshek (13 carries, 70 yards) ran pretty well late, but he’s a 3rd-down back.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst acknowledged the difficulties in his postgame comments with the media, even singling out 2 failed jet sweeps. That struck me as odd. When I think of Wisconsin, I don’t think of jet sweeps — I think of running between the tackles and physically dominating the defense. Mertz’s short passes to Groshek in the flat were far more effective.

That’s troubling because if this trend continues, it will put a tremendous amount of pressure on Mertz, who will be hard-pressed to continue his Mahomes impersonation all year. That may sound OK after watching him toss 5 TDs, but that has never been Wisconsin’s identity as a team. Evolving is great, but it also takes time. The Badgers don’t have the skill players on the outside to make this sort of night sustainable, unless Jake Ferguson is going to score 30 TDs this year. The Badgers’ best recruits are still offensive linemen, as they have had 21 offensive linemen taken in the NFL Draft since 2000, the most in college football.

So where does Wisconsin go from here? Maybe the answer is true freshman Jalen Berger, who is Wisconsin’s highest-rated running back signee in 13 years. Berger, a 4-star recruit and the No. 15 RB in the 2020 class, had 30 offers — including Ohio State, Alabama, Oregon and LSU. But he chose to be the next in a long line of great Wisconsin backs.

For now, Berger will wait his turn, just like Mertz did last year. But at some point, he may take this job and never look back.


My top players of the weekend

1. Justin Fields, Ohio State

Fields played a near-flawless game in completing 20 of 21 passes for 276 yards and 2 TDs, adding 54 yards and another TD on the ground. Ohio State couldn’t get the running game going, but Fields was perfectly capable carrying the load.

With the defense getting off to a shaky start and Ohio State looking a bit shell-shocked after Nebraska marched right down the field on the opening drive, Fields was a steadying presence.

2. David Bell, Purdue

I figured out Purdue’s offense: Throw to David Bell, rinse, repeat. Bell exploded for 121 yards and 3 TDs on 13 receptions, the last of which gave Purdue a 24-20 win.

I’m not being critical, either. He’s a stud. Though Purdue may want to consider mixing in that Rondale Moore guy next week, too.

3. Graham Mertz, Wisconsin

Mertz was everything he was hyped up to be and more in his first career start, putting forth a dazzling performance in completing 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and 5 TDs. It was quite the first impression, and the redshirt freshman is going to be a blast to watch the next few years.

4. Kwity Paye, Michigan

The No. 1 player on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List, Paye showed why he’s such an intriguing prospect. He finished with 2 sacks, though it felt like he had a lot more. This could be the start of a special season.

5. Shaka Toney, Penn State

The only player on a losing team to make the cut, Toney should have won the game for Penn State with his pressure on Penix, as he sacked him twice to force a 3rd-and-21.

Honorable mention: Peyton Ramsey (Northwestern), Jake Ferguson (Wisconsin), Garrett Wilson (Ohio State), Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota) and Greg Schiano (Rutgers)

Least Valuable Player: Targeting rules

Nebraska lost 2 starters, Cam Taylor-Britt and Deontai Williams, due to targeting in the 2nd half against Ohio State. There are certain times that there is simply nothing the defender can do to avoid these penalties.

The worst part is now Nebraska will start in a major hole against Wisconsin in Week 2. Joel Klatt spent the last few seconds of the broadcast imploring the B1G to review the plays and overturn the 1st half suspensions. Urban Meyer echoed that sentiment in the postgame show.