Penn State football: Time for the haters to hush up for a while
I know I look too much at social media. It makes me think less of my fellow man and my fellow fan. Some of them anyway.
Well, it’s time for the sourpusses to swallow some crow and concede that James Franklin, his staff and his starting quarterback are not going to be the ruin of a once-proud program. Penn State is in some very capable hands right now.
In my final opinion piece prior to the Nittany Lions’ opener at Purdue, I picked my alma mater not only to beat the Boilermakers but to parlay that victory into an 11-2 bounce-back season. I did so almost as a reaction to the negative vibe I couldn’t seem to escape, although I also believed it to be very possible.
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Many fellow Blue and White fans were not so optimistic. They had reasons, and good ones. The predominately young PSU squad faced a lot of questions entering 2022, about its roster and its coaching staff.
I take no issue with those who wanted to ground themselves to realistic expectations. In a different mood, I might have said 7-5 myself.
But the Facebook and Twitter mobs also seemed jam-packed with some combination of trolls and actual fans venting absolute scorn for the main faces of the program. Some people I know personally and others who are just names on the internet expressed feelings as if Franklin and Sean Clifford had personally ruined their lives or hurt their children. I really don’t get it.
Two years of snark, mockery and condescension were more than enough for me. Hopefully I didn’t get sucked into it too much, but one couldn’t really avoid being around it. Fandom is supposed to be fun, a vicarious joy ride as summer turns to fall turns to winter. So I said 11-2. Why not? It could happen. It seems some folks would rather revel in nailing a 7-5 prediction than in being pleasantly surprised by what is turning out to be a very easy team to like and root for.
I know those type of folks have already commenced the bad-mouthing of Auburn, which is indeed a program in turmoil that I expected to lose to the Lions by double digits. But I didn’t expect 41-12, and that score screams a big SHUT UP to naysayers no matter how bad the Tigers turn out to be.
The fact is, the Lions went into SEC country — the first Big Ten team ever to play at Jordan-Hare Stadium — and ripped embattled 2nd-year coach Bryan Harsin’s squad a new one.
But, just to be fair, before making my case in favor of these Lions, I’m going to outline the naysayers’ arguments for them relative to Saturday’s game:
- Franklin made an awful decision to go for a 4th-and-1 from his own side of the field on Penn State’s first drive, giving Auburn a short field that led to its opening field goal.
- Clifford didn’t read a confused Auburn defense’s blown coverage or see a wide-open Parker Washington, never looking left despite Washington going in motion to that side. Another time, he underthrew a pass badly that probably would have drawn an interference penalty had the ball been remotely catchable.
- The offensive line under 3rd-year coach Phil Trautwein produced just 65 rushing yards in the first half on 19 carries, a 3.4-yard average.
- New defensive coordinator Manny Diaz’s over-aggressive defense allowed Auburn to convert 2 3rd-and-forevers in the first half.
I saw all that. Here’s what I also saw:
For those who call Clifford selfish for taking a 6th year rather than moving on, I enter this play as counter evidence:
Here’s the hit on Clifford. Hard to believe he got right up pic.twitter.com/zsnFpNi0Zm
— Seth Engle (@bigsengtweets) September 17, 2022
First drive of the game, 3rd-and-8. Clifford knows where the line to gain is, and knows he won’t reach it if he slides. So he goes headfirst and absorbs the equivalent of a head-on car crash. He does so for his teammates, for Dear Old State, for the fans. He gets up and runs a sneak the very next play on Franklin’s failed 4th-down attempt.
The 24-year-old senior rates as an above average college quarterback, and one with a lot of guts. He’s starting over 5-star Drew Allar because he’s the better option right now. Experience matters. Allar’s time will come soon enough. He is the better talent. His ball has more zip and a faster, tighter spin than Clifford’s. But he hasn’t been battled tested, and there’s no reason to put him in now in place of someone who has been for 3-plus years and is playing at a high level. Take Allar at his word: Penn State’s elder statesman is a great mentor.
Clifford made some big-time throws while going 14-for-19 and surpassing Christian Hackenberg for 2nd on PSU’s career passing yards list. Let him enjoy it.
If you’re still bitter over his flirtations with other schools and the ensuring contract extension, get over yourself. It’s not your money, and it’s not out of line with the market. That’s how the game is played, and Franklin and his agent played it well. And now that it’s settled, the 9th-year coach is in sync with his new AD, the Board of Trustees and the Letterman’s Club, which is delivering major help on the NIL front. Facility improvements are getting done.
On the field, he’s delivering changes most followers have been calling for: plays from under center, commitment to the run game, putting the best players on the field regardless of age. Along with OC Mike Yurcich, he’s evolving the offense to rely less on QB runs, use more 2 and 3-tight end sets and game-plan in a way that helps the line succeed. He’s restocked the quarterback room after last year’s disaster, and he’s gotten Allar into all 3 games so far. Winning and building for the future — that’s a good combination.
The 2022 recruiting class and transfers are paying huge dividends. Franklin nailed that, just like he did in getting Arnold Ebiketie from Temple a year ago.
He handles himself in public with calm and class. I watch his press conferences and coaches’ show appearances. It adds up to a lot of hours per week in front of cameras. Never heard him say anything more terse than “I’m not sure I agree with the premise of your question.” He’ll joke about Clifford being 37 years old and roll with some of the criticism he knows is out there.
He’s in a good space, and that’s good for Penn State football.
After no sacks allowed against Auburn and a second straight game with more than 230 rushing yards, Penn State’s offensive line can feel good about itself for the first time in a while. Coach Trautwein’s bunch goes only 7 deep and benefits greatly from Nicholas Singleton’s 5-star talents. But there has been steady progress, and Auburn’s supposedly stout defense looked toothless. It’s been a long time since PSU’s front 5 has worn down an opponent, rather than the other way around.
With 5-star Alex Birchmeier and 4-star J’ven Williams in the 2023 recruiting class, Penn State’s 3rd-year line coach could deliver a premier unit within a few years. Maybe you don’t want to fire this guy after all.
The new DC promised an aggressive style hellbent on producing sacks and turnovers. Not much of that materialized over the first 2 weeks, but some of us saw it coming. With uber-athletic newcomers Abdul Carter (freshman) and Chop Robinson (transfer sophomore) leading the way, the defense blitzed the luck out of Auburn on Saturday, netting 6 sacks and 4 TOs.
I love it. I’ll live with the risk-reward tradeoff over former DC Brent Pry’s bend-don’t-break approach. This is going be fun to watch.
* * * * *
This is fun! Let’s roll.
My goal here is not to scold anyone or convince anyone Franklin will ever be Nick Saban.
Before the season is done, the sourpusses might yet be proven correct. In the future, there again will be times for commiserating and contemplating and complaining. I’m a cerebral type myself. My highs aren’t real high, especially over games for which I am a powerless spectator. But there is something about being a fan that has kept me coming back for almost 50 years now. And that something isn’t griping over the flaws — real or imagined — of a highly-entertaining, 3-0, Top 20 team.
Get on board. You can always go back to your curmudgeonly ways.