Penn State football: When the 1-0 mentality becomes the 1-0 insanity.
In the span of one press conference, James Franklin refuted his own mantra about Penn State’s 1-0 mentality.
Which is okay, because no one buys it anyway.
Of course, every team in every sport would rather win than lose its next outing.
But in a world more complicated than the fictional one Nuke LaLoosh inhabited, the adults in charge have greater responsibilities than finding a path to the next victory.
James Franklin knows this. He knows the deafening grumblings of fans won’t go away with a victory Saturday at 14-point underdog Indiana (3-5, 1-4). And he should know a win over the Hoosiers in which lame-duck quarterback Sean Clifford goes the distance would be empty calories for a success-starved program.
The future must factor into the calculus, and more so now that the Nittany Lions have 2 losses this season.
Drew Allar, the 5-star freshman with the golden arm of LaLoosh and almost certainly a better head on his broad shoulders, should play a lot now. Whether he will or not, Franklin won’t say.
“We’ll continue to evaluate it like we always do,” he said at his regular Tuesday session with the media. “I understand the question, I truly do, but it also comes off to me when I’ve got that question multiple times, as if this game is not really important.
“So for us, we’re going to look at who gives us the best chance to be 1-0 this week and go from there.”
Clifford, even coming off a 4-turnover game, might be that guy. But focusing exclusively on 1-0 is insanity.
It’d be great for Penn State to go 5-0 down the stretch of this season and finish 11-2. Coming off a 2-year stretch of .500 football, that would bring joy and relief to the faithful. But it’s more important to prepare to go 5-0 to start 2023, and the 25-year-old version of Sean Clifford won’t be on the roster then.
Facing media badgering on the topic, Franklin conceded as much.
“What you would like to do at the same time is [work on] getting better and building for your future. I hope that you can do those two things together. I don’t think they’re exclusive of one another. Obviously there are going to be a lot of factors [read: blowout win] that play into that that will allow you to maybe prepare for the future a little bit more, but I just think there is a balance between the two. …
“For me, I think you guys know, we’ve said it enough, but ultimately, I’ve got to do what’s best for Penn State to be 1-0 this weekend.”
Full circle. Going 1-0 in Memorial Stadium in Bloomington trumps all. Ugh.
Let’s walk AND chew gum, James.
Allar has already played in 5 games. There’s no redshirt to protect. And he’s already won the 2023 QB competition. If the 5-star rating didn’t seal that deal the day he stepped on campus, his preseason rise to No. 2 on the depth chart did. Penn State has 5 more games to let the 18-year-old have growing pains that won’t affect next year’s quest for the B1G breakthrough Clifford never could produce.
The funny thing is, if Penn State were to lay an egg against Indiana, Franklin would get a pass if Allar made his first start. Fans get it. The long-term health of the program outweighs any 1 game once a league championship or CFP spot are out of reach.
A coach can’t just play for this Saturday’s win, because there will be a next Saturday and a next season.
Case study: Michigan
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, like Franklin a former quarterback himself, came out of the 2020 pandemic-shortened season facing doubts and calls for his job. Yet even while chasing a CFP spot last year, he played 5-star freshman JJ McCarthy in crucial situations, not just mop-up duty. Did it risk going 1-0? It sure as heck did. McCarthy fumbled twice, losing 1 of them, in the Wolverines’ 37-33 fall-from-ahead loss to Michigan State.
Even in the midst of a 7-0 start and 11-1 regular season, in which every game had B1G championship and CFP implications, Harbaugh inserted true freshman McCarthy into 9 games, a few times before the outcome was decided. Harbaugh paid a price against the Spartans, but he’s reaping benefits a year later.
Franklin could do likewise. Four regular-season games remain, and he could start Clifford in every one of them and still finds series or whole quarters for Allar. Not only could the 9th-year Lions coach do that, he should do that.
Earlier this season, Harbaugh made the tough choice to move on from Cade McNamara — the starter who carried him to his first CFP berth in 2021. Harbaugh decided McCarthy gave him the best chance not only to go 1-0, but to go 12-0.
Franklin isn’t playing for such high stakes, and doesn’t need to make such a dramatic move. Allar doesn’t have to start. He just has to play. Significant snaps. With the first-team offense. Before the fourth quarter.
The way Franklin handles Clifford and Allar though November will have repercussions. The coach said Tuesday he doesn’t want to send the wrong message to the guys in the locker room who will suit up for the Nittany Lions the next 4 Saturdays. He also must worry about his future players — those committed to or considering the program. High school quarterbacks and receivers are gaging what their potential future coach is all about.
Harbaugh has a 5-star quarterback game-managing a ground-based attack. He knows at some point he’ll need that arm talent against an Alabama, Georgia or Clemson. Maybe even Nov. 26 against Ohio State and its improved defense. So he’s slowly grooming McCarthy toward that end.
Making sure McCarthy is ready started last year.
Franklin needs to start that process in earnest with Allar. That matters at least as much as going 1-0 against Indiana.