Is Penn State about to go back to its pre-2016 form under James Franklin?
When the clock hit zero and Penn State walked off the field after a 42-7 beatdown at Michigan, I had some flashbacks to 2016.
That matchup in Ann Arbor, as you’ll recall, was ugly. The Lions were blown out by the Wolverines in the B1G opener to begin what looked like another year of mediocrity in the B1G.
What happened next was something that few could’ve predicted at the time. The Lions won their final 8 regular season games en route to a B1G Championship and a Rose Bowl berth. From the post-2016 Michigan loss through Week 4 of 2018, Penn State was 24-3 with a pair of top-8 season’s end rankings.
But since Week 5 of this season, the Lions have lost as many games in a 5-game stretch as they did in the previous 2 years dating back to October 2016. Even worse was the fact that all 3 of those losses came to Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. Penn State has actually lost 5 in a row in matchups against one of those B1G East foes.
That’s probably not lost on Lions fans, who watched Playoff hopes evaporate into thin air after a promising start.
My question is not what the rest-of-season outlook for Penn State is. It’s clear that the program is stepping down from its 2016-17 form, but how far down will it go?
And is it crazy to wonder if Penn State could revert back to its pre-2016 ways?
Before I offend too many Lions fans for asking that question, let’s start with the basics. Penn State hasn’t been blown out like it was on Saturday since the last time it traveled to Michigan. Even if you include this year’s Michigan State and Ohio State losses, Penn State was outscored by a TOTAL of 12 points in the 5 losses in between the 2016 and 2018 Michigan games.
There’s also the lingering concern that Penn State’s offense was taken to new heights thanks in large part to Joe Moorhead, who is obviously now the head coach at Mississippi State.
It was Moorhead who Franklin turned the offense over to as concerns about his long-term future in State College surfaced in the beginning of 2016. Outside of getting Saquon Barkley to flip his Rutgers commitment, that might’ve been Franklin’s best move since he got the job in 2014.
Despite what we saw from Penn State in the first few weeks of this season, it’s clear that the offense is simply not what it was with Moorhead. Of course, losing the likes of Barkley, Mike Gesicki and DaeSean Hamilton have something to do with that.
And while I’m a big Trace McSorley believer, the drop-off in his production is significant. I understand he hasn’t been at 100 percent (how DARE a reporter ask Franklin about his status for a game). Still, a guy who completed 67 percent of his passes a year ago is down to 52 percent accuracy, and his quarterback rating is down from 155 in the 2 years with Moorhead to 123. There’s been more pressure on McSorley to move the chains and whether it’s because of the inexperience at the skill positions or his health, nobody can argue that the production just isn’t there.
That’s sort of the story for this Penn State team as a whole. That’s a frustrating reality to accept after the run the Lions went on the last 2 years, and considering the fact that this is the last year of the program’s most productive quarterback ever.
No, the cupboard isn’t bare. It’s not like once McSorley leaves, Penn State’s entire offense is gone. Miles Sanders could be back, and freshman playmaker K.J. Hamler has at least a couple more years in Franklin’s program. Underclassmen like Micah Parsons and Yetur Gross-Matos are promising players who will likely wreak havoc on B1G offenses for years to come.
As far as incoming talent, Penn State currently has the No. 14 class in America. Ironically enough, that’s exactly where that Barkley-led 2015 class was ranked. With any of those Jerry Sandusky-related sanctions/negative recruiting tactics well in the rearview mirror, nothing will hold Franklin back from continuing to recruit at a high level. Franklin is just 9 months removed from signing the No. 6 class in America. The talent will be there.
My question is if the 2016-17 level of success will be there, too.
Franklin earned the extension he got in 2017. He proved that he was capable of building the Lions back into one of the premier programs in college football. For a 2-year stretch, there might not have been 5 better programs nationally than Penn State.
What will the next 2 years look like? Will they look like Franklin’s first 2 seasons in State College? Going 14-12 with a 6-10 mark in B1G play (including 0-6 vs. Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State), seems too pessimistic while the 2016-17 run seems too optimistic. Nobody will pat Franklin on the back if he’s closer to the former than the latter.
Maybe Penn State will finish the regular season 9-3, win a bowl game and cap off its third straight season of double-digit wins with an optimistic outlook moving forward. Or perhaps the Lions are in for a relatively hollow 8-win season that resembles 2015.
I don’t know. All I know is that before Saturday, it had been awhile since Penn State looked that bad against a divisional foe. Two years and some change, essentially. And before Saturday, the last time the Lions lost to their 3 B1G East rivals in the same season was 2015, which was also the last time before the OSU game that they lost in Happy Valley.
Franklin raised the bar to extraordinary heights the last couple years. He deserves tremendous credit for that.
Whether Franklin can get back to the high bar he set for himself remains to be seen.