Hickey: Little Game James Franklin is exposed yet again in another top-10 loss
Nobody punches down quite as well as James Franklin.
Pair Franklin against a team that he should beat, and the results are pretty good. Franklin is now 81-21 (.794) facing opponents that aren’t ranked in the top 10 in 10 seasons at Penn State.
But any time Franklin moves up a weight class, he quickly shows himself to be overmatched. Time and time again.
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It happened yet again on Saturday as Franklin’s 7th-ranked Nittany Lions lost to Ohio State for the 7th-straight season. Franklin is 3-16 (.158) against top-10 opponents, including 0-10 on the road. Extended to top-25 foes, Franklin is 13-23 (.361), including 2-13 on the road.
That scenario is Penn State’s existential crisis in a nutshell.
Franklin hasn’t dropped a game that Penn State was supposed to win since falling to Illinois in 9 overtimes in 2021. But he also hasn’t won a regular-season game against a team that finished the season in the top 25 since beating eventual-No. 18 Michigan in 2019. Or any regular-season game as an underdog since dropping the 5th-ranked Wolverines the previous season.
You can’t run off a coach who has firmly established Penn State as the 3rd-best program in the Big Ten. The gap between the Nittany Lions and the rest of the field is significant.
Yet you also can’t trust Franklin to truly get his team on the same level as Michigan and Ohio State. The table was as set for the Nittany Lions as it could ever be on Saturday. Ohio State was without starting running back TreVeyon Henderson, No. 2 wide receiver Emeka Egbuka and starting cornerback Denzel Burke.
Ohio State was as vulnerable as it will ever be.
But this is James Franklin. And like Charlie Brown running up to kick a field goal, the results seem destined to be the same every damn time.
Franklin’s latest failure
Penn State has a championship-caliber defense this season. And not just a Big Ten championship. Good enough to win the whole enchilada.
The Nittany Lions limited Ohio State to 4 yards per play on the 52 plays that did not involve wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. The Buckeyes managed just 1.9 yards per carry.
Without Harrison’s 11 receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown, this might have looked a lot like that 20-18 game against Illinois that wasn’t settled for 9 overtimes.
Franklin doesn’t have a Harrison in his arsenal, and it showed.
Behind KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who had 6 catches for 52 yards, Penn State’s receiving corps is as pedestrian as they come. And because of it, there is simply no way of knowing how much Drew Allar has to offer as a quarterback.
Penn State came into the game with just 1 pass play of more than 40 yards this season and exited the game with the same number. Iowa and Minnesota are the only teams in the country that have failed to connect on a 40-yard completion this year.
As Iowa itself proves on a regular basis, it’s not actually possible to win a championship pairing a top-tier defense with such an utter lack of explosiveness on offense.
It is clear that Franklin and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich don’t have much faith in their passing game. The only question is whether that mistrust is primarily directed at Allar, his pass-catchers, or his protection.
Penn State drove the ball inside the Ohio State 30-yard line twice in the first 59 minutes of the game. In both scenarios, the Nittany Lions handed the ball off on 3rd down, clearly content to settle for field goals rather than risk anything going wrong in an attempt to pick up a first down.
That’s the type of risk-averse decision-making that leaves you 3-16 against top-10 opponents. Franklin is the antithesis of former LSU coach Les Miles, who was perhaps a little too eager to find the wackiest parts of his playbook when facing top-10 opponents.
But at least The Mad Hatter’s unorthodox methods sometimes worked, which is more than we can say for Franklin’s approach. It’s hard to win as an underdog when you do absolutely nothing to tilt the odds in your favor. Or when your bizarre calls are just plain bad rather than quirky.
For example, Penn State’s most important offensive play call of the game.
Facing a must-convert 4th-and-3 in the 4th quarter, Yurcich elected to not give left tackle Olu Fashanu any help against Ohio State defensive end JT Tuimoloau, who terrorized Penn State last season.
That might have worked had the Nittany Lions run quick patterns to the sticks with a running back or tight end who wasn’t staying home to block. But instead, the play was of the slow-developing variety.
Of course, @OhioStateFB DE JT Tuimoloau comes up with the big play vs. Penn State. 😤
— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) October 21, 2023
By the time tight end Theo Johnson is breaking into his pattern, Tuimoloau is already bearing down on Allar. And he’s the only Penn State pass catcher who looks to have any shot at catching a pass, because the other patterns are still developing. (If anyone did get open, they aren’t visible on the TV screen — or to Allar.)
It’s little surprise that Penn State finished the game 1-of-16 on 3rd down, which is the worst performance by any ranked team in the past decade. And bear in mind that Iowa has been ranked many times over that same decade.
Penn State went 1-16 (6.3%) on 3rd down in the loss vs Ohio State.
With a minimum of 15 third down attempts, that's the worst 3rd down conversion pct by any AP-ranked team in a game over the last 10 seasons. pic.twitter.com/v08lvUkv5d
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 21, 2023
I’ll believe it isn’t over when I see it
On paper, Penn State’s season isn’t over. Far from it.
The Nittany Lions still have a crack at Michigan. And if the Wolverines lose at Penn State but beat Ohio State for the 3rd straight year, that could create a 3-way logjam atop the Big Ten East.
The tiebreaker would likely boil down to the team that played the 3 Big Ten West opponents with the best cumulative conference record. And since Penn State is the only team of that trio to have played Iowa, that tiebreaker would likely go the Nittany Lions way.
But in order for that scenario to play out, Little Game James must finally win a big game.
Do you really think that’s going to happen?