Penn State under James Franklin still looks like an 11th wheel in the Big Ten all these years later
What do Penn State fans have left other than to complain about the coach?
This is James Franklin’s 9th year in State College, and there’s zero evidence he has any clue how to lead a power program in a power conference. He talked the right talk coming into this season, about toughening up the offensive line and playing a more physical brand of football in all phases. He knows what needs to happen. He just doesn’t seem to know how to make it happen.
Along the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and at several other key positions, one or more of these things are true of Penn State’s players:
- They’re not big enough.
- They’re not strong enough.
- They’re not tough enough, physically or mentally.
- They’re not mean enough, motivated enough, scrappy enough, determined enough …
Penn State, flat out, can’t play big-boy, Big Ten football. And that creates a ceiling. And Franklin and his program are up against it.
If a basic, no-frills Michigan can just line up and push the Lions around, the future remains limited. No breakthroughs are coming.
And that’s exactly what the No. 5 Wolverines did Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Their 41-17 victory easily could have been 57-10. Jim Harbaugh probably wasn’t even worried at halftime despite leading only 16-14. Just go back out there and keep stomping the crap out of those Lions, Michigan Men.
Coaching is so much easier when one has a dominant offensive line. Your team can run for 418 yards and 4 TDs, allowing your 5-star quarterback to continue easing into the starting job. With a stout defensive front, you can hold the opponent’s 2 stud freshman running backs to 12 carries for 35 yards.
Michigan isn’t solely a group of brutes. Running backs Blake Corum (166 yards rushing) and Donovan Edwards (173) can scoot, as can quarterback JJ McCarthy (57). The receivers match up evenly with Penn State’s group. The back-end defenders hold their own.
Michigan can match Penn State’s skill and athleticism. The Lions can’t match the Wolverines’ power.
“We we did not do well on either front,” Franklin said afterward. “That’s tight ends, that’s o-line, that’s the d-line, and that’s linebackers. They outplayed us on both fronts. There’s no doubt about that.
“When I say that, that’s coaching, that’s playing, that’s all of it.”
Franklin owned it, and admitted there are no immediate solutions.
“Yeah, it’s all of it. We’ve gotta develop. We’ve gotta recruit. We’ve gotta get bigger. We’re undersized in some spots.”
Franklin’s best teams have been built on finesse, the kind of squads that lose bowl games 52-49 and win them 53-39. That’ll work some years against Pac-12 teams and probably every year against Memphis. It won’t work against Michigan, and some years not even against Illinois. No one will get away with playing 7 defensive backs against those teams.
Penn State will never have a back with enough burst or a linebacker with enough speed to mitigate softness along the line of scrimmage against the Big Ten’s top teams. Finesse can and has gotten Penn State into the top 10, but it hasn’t gotten the program past a top-10 opponent in 6 tries by Sean Clifford and the past 10 by Franklin. It hasn’t gotten them past a top 5 team on the road since the 1990s.
The one Penn State player who seems to fit the B1G trench warrior mold, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, made 6 tackles but didn’t have a huge impact Saturday. Michigan put on a clinic on offensive line play, opening gaping holes. Mustipher is a 6th-year senior; he’ll be gone next year. A couple of 4-star offensive linemen lead the 2023 recruiting class, but how soon they’ll be able to help is open to debate. They shouldn’t have to play right away. That’s not a normal ask for an offensive lineman.
Franklin has never been able to group enough trench warriors together on one squad, or develop enough of them sufficiently. Penn State has mostly been coming up short in this regard through most of its 30 seasons in the Big Ten.
The program could use a Jim Harbaugh type of coach. Maybe a Bret Bielema, who has Illinois at 6-1 after Saturday’s 26-14 victory over Minnesota. If you don’t remember, he’s the guy who orchestrated the 9-OT upset of the Lions last year.
But Franklin just inked a long-term deal last year, so Lions fans will have to hope the talk turns into results at some point soon.
White Out loses some shine
In the meantime, next week’s White Out game looms. Minnesota has a banged up 6th-year quarterback, like Penn State does, but will bring a ground game a lot like Michigan’s to Beaver Stadium. Maybe Mustipher and Manny Diaz’s defense can deliver more resistance at home against power back Mohamed Ibrahim and the Golden Gophers.
But this season looks like it could spiral just like last year’s, which ended at 7-6. Sean Clifford exited with a sore shoulder Saturday, and 5-star Drew Allar looked more like a true freshman than a savior. Still, at this point, Franklin should start Allar.
Clifford was his normal warrior self and produced Penn State’s only big offensive plays Saturday. He’s been more the victim than the cause of Penn State’s deficiencies through 4 years as the starter. He’s given what he has to give. But he’s beat up, and like Penn State as currently constructed, has maxed out his potential.
Allar, true freshman backs Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen, and classmate Abdul Carter at linebacker should become the faces of the program now.
It’s not time to give up, but it is time to move forward.
Maybe playing time and even days like Saturday can help harden the young Lions. But that alone won’t be enough.
Until Franklin can figure out how to attract, develop and motivate more big, physical tough guys, Penn State will bump up against reality again and again. In his various engagements with reporters and the public, he often comes off like a parent or teacher more concerned with being liked than respected. That may be silly sideline psychoanalysis, but through 3 years at Vanderbilt and 9 at Penn State, his teams have been the bullied, not the bully, in any big-game matchup. Sometimes Sugar Ray Leonard. Never Mike Tyson.
Coming off post-Sandusky sanctions, that was understandable in the coach’s first 2 seasons. It’s not anymore. He’s gotten the money and facilities upgrades he’s asked for. The football lettermen are organizing NIL groups to help the cause.
After another embarrassment such as what the nation saw on FOX, one would think the players would demand to be coached harder. Michigan’s talent is not that much superior.
Get past Minnesota, and many Penn State fans will get themselves jacked up for the following week’s meeting with No. 2 Ohio State. There will be a Stripe Out to follow the White Out. But the reality is, the Maize Out had nothing to do with what happened at The Big House.
That was all Michigan. Simple, basic, straight-ahead Michigan. Franklin, 9 years in at Penn State, has no counters. Until that changes, the Lions will keep going down, often in brutal fashion, when push comes to shove.