Penn State football: Is there a next step with James Franklin leading the program?
It’s a good thing the Big Ten is going to change next season. Maybe that’ll help.
Penn State under James Franklin has shown no ability to adapt to the current configuration of its conference. Maybe the 18-team monstrosity that debuts without divisions in 2024 will be more conducive to success for the Nittany Lions.
For the first time since 2012, the program won’t have to play Michigan next season. In theory, that should give Franklin a shot at his first 11-1 regular season since taking the reins in 2014. But the B1G’s second-longest tenured head coach still will have to face Ohio State, plus league newcomers USC, UCLA and Washington.
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If Franklin can’t show more creativity and fortitude than he did in his team’s latest big-game loss — 24-15 at home to the Wolverines on Saturday — he won’t run the new B1G gauntlet any better than the old one. He spends too much time on the extremes of the timid-reckless spectrum than on the good parts of the careful-daring one.
Frustrating, but not horrible
Before this becomes too much of a bash session, some caveats … and some credit where credit is due.
Franklin inherited a sanctions-depleted roster the very year the Big Ten realigned to its idiotic East-West divisions. Winning the B1G title in Year 3 was a phenomenal accomplishment. Recruiting hasn’t been this good in a long time, thanks to facilities upgrades, coaching staff expansion and development, and Franklin’s ability to adjust to changing rules regarding transfers and NIL.
It’s possible Penn State is analogous to Texas A&M, which is loaded with cash and resources and has a 100,000-seat stadium fans have proved willing to fill. Jimbo Fisher, considerably more acclaimed than Franklin when he took over in 2018, has had at least 4 losses in every non-Covid year, including this one. Breaking through in the SEC might not be in the cards, even for a former Nick Saban assistant who won a national title in the 2013 season as head coach at Florida State.
Franklin doesn’t have a legendary mentor or a national title. What he does have in common with Fisher is a perennial also-ran in a brutally tough, top-heavy conference.
Maybe this job isn’t doable. And Franklin deserves credit for getting his program this far. But if the job is doable, it might be time for a change.
Haphazard offensive approach
Franklin worked on the offensive side on the ball in his pre-head coaching days. So it’s kind of damning that that is where most of the problems lie. Manny Diaz’s defense sprang a few leaks Saturday, but mostly it just wore down because the offense couldn’t stay on the field enough in the second half, and then Franklin gave the ball away at his own 30-yard line with a reckless 4th-and-6 decision with 4:21 remaining.
Most Penn State fans surely were first-guessing against that decision. A good number probably didn’t agree with going for 2 after both touchdowns.
The bigger problem with the offense, though, is that it hasn’t progressed much since Game 1, Allar’s only 300-yard passing game. Coordinator Mike Yurcich, presumably with Franklin’s input, wasted blowout victories without working to expand the attack or establish go-to players. In most of its 8 victories, Penn State had safe enough leads to take deep shots and to establish a top back or a No. 2 receiver by pounding the ball to particular guys.
Instead, Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton shared the ball evenly, as they did again Saturday, to the detriment of both. Thanks to a 34-yard jaunt, Allen finished with 72 yards on 12 carries against Michigan. Singleton netted 43 yards on 13 attempts. Those 2 are also limited by a blocking scheme up front that is less than ideal and almost requires a running quarterback. Allar fit that bill with 49 yards and a TD on 10 carries, but he also fumbled while lumbering up the middle trying to earn a first down.
Leading receiver KeAndre Lambert-Smith had 1 catch for 6 yards. No one had more than 2 receptions. Dante Cephas, a veteran transfer from Kent State, had 2 catches for 11 yards a week after a breakout game that Franklin said “changes everything.” TEs Tyler Warren and Theo Johnson, who each had 2 receptions Saturday, sometimes have been go-to guys, but not consistently.
Other teams do not volunteer to take their best players out of the game. Ohio State will always find ways to get Marvin Harrison Jr. the ball. And a defense that goes to extremes to stop him will get burned in other areas. Georgia resumed targeting TE Brock Bowers early and often upon his return from injury Saturday. Michigan gave Corum the ball 26 times, which produced 145 yards and 2 TDs. He had a long run of 44 yards to help set up his team’s 2nd TD. A great back is likely to break one given 26 tries and a salty line with a solid plan.
Michigan knows its identity so well that it can execute its plan even without its head coach on the sideline. Staff and players know what Jim Harbaugh wants, and how to produce it. From acting coach Sherrone Moore on down, no one flinched or strayed from the formula. Then they emotionally poured their hearts out to their suspended leader in postgame interviews.
To a man, the Wolverines know who they are and what they’re about. They play with hard-earned confidence that can’t be faked.
In big games, Yurcich and Franklin don’t seem to understand that they are the underdogs. Going against the best defense in the country, they should know some new wrinkles are in order. But other than a nifty halfback pass to Allar to pick up a first down, there wasn’t much to give Michigan DC Jesse Minter pause.
With a 1st-and-goal at the 3, Yurcich didn’t bring backup QB Beau Pribula onto the field a single time, even as a decoy. Franklin started touting the plan several weeks ago, and used it once — a play that produced a touchdown — last week against Maryland. But this time, it was run (no gain), incomplete pass, incomplete pass, 20-yard field goal.
Buoyed by its stand, Michigan caught its breath and scored TDs on back-to-back drives to turn a 3-0 first-quarter deficit into a 14-3 lead.
Penn State was essentially done. The Lions finished 4-for-13 on third downs and were held to 238 total yards. Their longest pass play went for 19 yards. They didn’t take any downfield shots.
Playing this way against favored opponents gives the appearance of not trying. With a more daring strategy, losses would be easier to swallow. “At least they tried. … They went down swinging.” But that’s been less and less the case since Joe Moorhead left the OC post after 2017. The offense has been progressively less fun under Ricky Rahne, Kirk Ciarrocca and now Yurcich.
Is change possible?
For Penn State to break through its glass ceiling, Franklin will have to change. The program might make the 12-team Playoff that debuts next season, but it won’t beat perennial top-5 powers with its stale approach.
Cakewalks vs. Rutgers and at Michigan State remain on the schedule, and “going 1-0 next week” should be assumed. Finding dangerous receivers who will be returning for 2024 should be a priority. Giving each back a shot to get the bulk of the carries in 1 of the 2 games would make sense. Perhaps at least 1 of them will flourish with a larger workload. Let Allar sling the ball. Get Pribula involved.
First-year receivers coach Marques Hagans might find or develop some more and better targets with an offseason to work with. The current results may be an indication of why predecessor Taylor Stubblefield had to go. Now Hagans is on the clock.
Penn State seems to have a crisis at one position or another every year. The staff, collectively, must figure out how to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses.
It starts with the guy at the top. Franklin should be on the clock too, even with 8 years left on his deal.