Good call, Coach! James Franklin's 5 best decisions for Penn State in 2020
At a vaunted program such as Penn State, you can’t start 0-5 and not take some heat — not even in a weird, pandemic-addled season such as this one.
Fans, critic and commentators delivered their best shots at James Franklin last month, including yours truly in a piece outlining the 7th-year Penn State coach’s 5 biggest blunders of 2020.
Well, fair is fair. The Lions year-ending 4-game winning streak didn’t just emerge out of the ether. Franklin deserves credit for staying the course in some areas and making needed adjustments in others.
Here are 5 of Franklin’s best decisions of 2020, ones that helped salvage this season and should pay dividends in 2021, too.
Solving the QB issue
By the time the dust settled on Penn State’s fifth loss of the season, a 41-21 setback to visiting Iowa on Nov. 21, the Lions had 2 QBs with multiple bruises to their egos to match the ones on their bodies. And seemingly no good answers.
Sean Clifford was averaging 2 TOs and absorbing more than 3 sacks per game, and had scored for the other team — 2 fumble-6s and a pick-6 — in three consecutive games. Will Levis, who got his first start that Saturday afternoon against the Hawkeyes, fumbled 3 times in the game, losing 2, and twice failed to convert on fourth down. Clifford subbed in, hit a couple of quick-strike TD passes to get the Lions within 31-21, but then threw 2 more INTs.
Franklin and first-year OC Kirk Ciarrocca had a disaster on their hands, but somehow, in the space of a week, they mitigated it. They did so by creating clearly defined roles for Clifford and Levis that don’t overlap much, and sure do complement each other. It took some pressure off each of them, solidifying their relationship as colleagues rather than competitors for one job.
Clifford would manage the game with short and intermediate-level passes, thus reducing sacks and improving accuracy. He would still run some, as needed, but Levis would do the run game’s dirty work.
Out of the so-called “Falcon” package, Levis — a 6-3, 222-pound sophomore — proved to be the best short-yardage runner Franklin has had in his 7 years at Penn State. The threat that he might throw kept opposing defenses guessing, even though he never once passed or handed off in 23 snaps through the first 2 games of the winning streak.
Taking direct snaps, choosing the best available gap and bulling forward, he converted 3rd-and-short and 4th-and-short plays time after time. The lesser competition Penn State faced to close the season probably had something to do with the success, but it was nonetheless stunning. The coaches unleashed Levis to throw a few passes in the final 2 games, leaving next year’s opponents with a lot to think about when breaking down Penn State video.
A lot could happen before next fall, but this arrangement might actually work. It did this year.
“When we go in, we’re executing to the best of our ability, and when we’re out, we both are cheering each other on,” Clifford said. “Will and I have a great relationship, and especially this year, it’s been kind of necessary to have a great relationship. But it’s been very easy, because Will and I are very similar. We’re both hard-working and we both want what’s best for the team. And I think it’s working right now.”
As much as Penn State likes to run its quarterbacks (more than 20 QB runs per game), sharing the load makes a lot of sense. The results speak for themselves: During the winning streak, Clifford completed 65.7 percent of his passes, with 5 TDs and only 1 INT. Levis pounded out a bunch of first downs and connected on 6 of 8 passes with 1 TD and no INTs. The team averaged 1 turnover per game after coughing up the ball 2.6 times per game previously.
Finding the right mix at QB salvaged the season, and probably the psyches of 2 key members of the squad. Good call, coach.
Going next-level strategically
Franklin did it again vs. Michigan State, going for 2 after a TD with plenty of game to be played. Did he not read my review of a similar decision against Maryland?
It worked this time. The Lions converted to close their gap to 21-18 and eventually won easily, 39-24. Am I now sold on going for 2 early in the third quarter? Not in the least.
But what do I know? Analytics applied at the NFL level produced a seemingly against-the-grain decision just recently. And computers can crunch data from 1,000s of past games and simulate 1,000s more.
I may not be ready to eschew basic logic or even gut-feel, but Franklin gets paid a lot of money to make the best decisions possible using all means available. The truce won’t last past the next failed 4th-and-1, but for now I’m giving Franklin credit for embracing analytics and technology.
Of course, for all I know he may have made the call against the Spartans on gut-feel. But whatever. Good call, coach.
Sacrificing for family, program
As almost all Penn State fans should know by now, one of Franklin’s daughters has a medical condition involving sickle cell disease that makes it all the more important that she avoid getting the coronavirus.
So Franklin decided his wife and children would hole up in their Florida residence while the coach stayed in State College to run his program. Even with stringent protocols, he couldn’t afford to be around dozens of players and staff each day and then go home to his family.
For months at a time, he’s been living a bachelor’s lonely life while focusing on football to an extent beyond his usual workaholic routine.
In doing so, he certainly modeled sacrifice and commitment — and players and staff members seemed to buy in. Good call, coach.
Even a 4-game winning streak doesn’t sugarcoat what happened on the field this season, but the biggest contest this fall didn’t happen on the field. The biggest challenge of 2020 was simply getting on the field. And Penn State did that, 9 weeks in a row, 1 of 2 B1G programs — along with Rutgers — to reach that finish line.
It took plenty of luck, of course, as Penn State had no control over COVID issues at other Big Ten schools. But for his part, Franklin insisted that Penn State would follow all guidelines put out by the university’s administration, the B1G and state and local government.
The Lions dealt with a slew of false positive tests that kept players and coaches away from practice for days at a time. But they have avoided a major outbreak, thanks to a mix of good luck and Franklin’s diligence. And that diligence counts as a really good call, because a leader should never mess with the health of young people entrusted to his care.
Empowering the players
With the advent of the transfer portal, the past few years have ushered in a new era in college football, and Penn State stumbled quite a bit making the adjustment. The program lost way too many players to the portal, including some former 5-star recruits.
But Franklin’s leadership approach of unconditional love and family atmosphere seems to be stabilizing things. The players competed with joy and passion down the stretch of a supposedly lost season.
The players earned the right to say yea or nay to a bowl game, and to have their decision respected.
“As you know, we rely on our captains and Leadership Council to provide a voice for our team, and our student-athletes made the difficult choice not to participate in a bowl this year in order to spend time with loved ones,” Franklin said in a statement.
“We are fully supportive of their decision, knowing it has been many months since our students-athletes have been able to spend time with their families and the challenges they endured, both physically and mentally,” he said. “This will be an opportunity for our guys to go home, see family and recharge for the spring semester.”
Whether it helps the brand and attracts prized recruits in the future or not, it was the right thing to do.
Good call, coach.