Penn State football: The 5 biggest blunders James Franklin has made in 2020
I’m not leading any Fire Franklin bandwagon.
Big picture, yes, I do worry that James Franklin may have topped out as Penn State’s head coach. But the school administration should not make any decisions about the football program based on this bizarre, off-again, on-again season.
After all, if this year’s 0-5 start sets up a reclamation project in State College, who better than Franklin to perform that task? I for one want to see how things go in a (hopefully) post-coronavirus 2021 when the Lions’ four new assistant coaches can truly settle into the program.
If this is to be a season to grow on, Franklin might want to reflect on some decisions that seemed to have a snowball effect as 2020 went downhill until Week 6.
If Franklin could buy some Mulligans, maybe some or all of these 5 blunders would be on his list:
1. The game-losing touchdown
It’s the play that got the 0-5 snowball rolling.
Indiana, with but 1 timeout remaining, turned the ball over on downs with 1:47 on the clock. Penn State had won its opener, 21-20. Except … 5 seconds and 14 yards later, Devyn Ford was in the end zone.
Somehow, the sophomore running back didn’t get the message — at least not clearly enough — that he should not score, no matter what. Trust me on the math, Penn State could have run out the clock. Instead, the Hoosiers produced TDs and 2-point conversions on consecutive drives to win 36-35 in overtime.
Blame Ford’s position coach, blame new OC Kirk Ciarrocca, but the buck stops at the top. The Lions made a major end-game gaffe, and Franklin must take ultimate responsibility for it.
From that point, Penn State’s season went one way, Indiana’s quite another.
2. 4th down gambling addict
Perhaps because of the sting from the opening loss, Franklin starting going for it on fourth down like a poker player trying to win back all his money on the next hand.
It started in Week 2 against Ohio State, when Franklin kept his offense on the field on 4th-and-2 from his own 45-yard line. After an incomplete pass, the Buckeyes went the 45 yards in 5 plays to take a 14-0 lead.
The very next week, again down 7-0 and on its opening drive, Penn State eschewed a field goal and went for it on 4th-and-3 at Maryland’s 7-yard line. Sean Clifford again threw an incomplete pass. The Terps eventually built their lead to 21-0 and the rout was on.
By the end of Week 5, Penn State was 7-of-15 on fourth down conversion attempts — many of them appearing to stem from desperation rather than cool calculation. I will go for it here or there. I will go for it anywhere.
3. The chart says go for 2?
This shouldn’t bother me as much as it does. It’s largely an academic point. Penn State almost certainly was not going to rally to beat Maryland after falling behind 35-7.
But there was still no reason to try a 2-point conversion after cutting the margin to 35-13 with more than 10 minutes remaining. And doing so sent a terrible message to Penn State’s players and fans. Franklin essentially said this:
“We’re giving up. There is no way we can score 3 TDs in 10 minutes against this program (the one we beat 59-0 the previous year), so we’re just going to practice a 2-point conversion play.”
No string of TDs and 2-point conversions could have gotten Penn State within field goal range. But the failed 2-point try could have ruined an improbable but not impossible comeback. Imagine the fallout if Penn State lost 35-33 because of multiple, unnecessary, failed 2-point tries.
Strategically, going for 2 made no sense. Psychologically, conceding the game with 10 minutes left did nothing positive for a fragile 0-2 squad.
4. Too in love with the QB run
After losing his top two running backs a few minutes into the season, it’s understandable that Franklin would lean on a tried and true strategy. Since Trace McSorley took the reins from Christian Hackenberg in 2016, Penn State’s offense has thrived on healthy doses of QB runs, some improvised, many planned.
The QB run game works best when it maintains some element of surprise and complements the running backs’ efforts. After Week 1, Penn State seemed to lose faith in sophomore Devyn Ford and true freshmen Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes. Over the next 4 weeks, one of the QBs (Sean Clifford or Will Levis) led the team in carries in each game and only once did a running back get double-digit attempts.
With little read-option action or other deception, the designed runs met more and more resistance.
It took until Week 6 for Franklin to trust Lee (22 carries, 134 yards) and thus find the right balance. Clifford, playing off the threat of Lee, ran 9 times for 73 yards in the victory over Michigan. That ratio, if maintained, should help keep Clifford and Levis healthy — and opposing defenses on their toes.
5. Too much staff turnover
There are four newcomers among Franklin’s main group of assistants. In the long run, they all might work out. But it sure is hard to maintain continuity when you’re on your fourth receivers coach in as many years. When three of your top four assistants on offense are new. And your defensive line coach is too.
Coronavirus protocols have made the transition period all the more difficult, no doubt.
But the revolving door needs to slow down. The Lions are on their fourth offensive coordinator and fifth receivers coach in Franklin’s 7 years. The churn certainly affects recruiting, as the Lions’ class of 2021 ranks only 6th in the B1G but the 2022 group already has 7 members (at least a couple recruited by new staff members) and ranks 3rd in the nation.
Occasionally, assistant coaches will leave to chase greater opportunities. But it’s time for Franklin to minimize year-to-year turnover and solidify his staff. He needs that foundation, as do his players.