Big trouble, no answers for Franklin

COMMENTARY

So, what are we to make of this mess?

Penn State got destroyed Saturday at Michigan. It has lost to all three of its top challengers in the Big Ten East, two at home. The offense went from awesome to awful in the blink of an eye.

Trace McSorley is clearly hurt, which is hurting the offense.

James Franklin, it’s apparent now more than ever, is a bad in-game coach. He makes decisions that make no sense just about every week, and his worst one of the season came Saturday when he recklessly kept putting the hobbled McSorley back into the game when things were already decided late and risking further injury to the quarterback, which would have hurt the team the rest of the season, as well.

Ricky Rahne’s play calling and offensive creativity have gone from highly questionable to a big problem.

The wide receivers, aside from K.J. Hamler, are simply not very good. Running back Miles Sanders isn’t reliable when he can’t hang onto the ball.

This team, which we all thought was really good a month ago, has suffered a meltdown.

OK, so now what?

The good news is the Lions can still finish 9-3. They’ve got a tough home game against a very physical Wisconsin team this week, but they’re favored by eight points and should win.

After that, Penn State is at lowly Rutgers and at home against Maryland to close the regular season.

A 9-3 record probably would mean the Citrus Bowl against an outstanding SEC opponent, or the Outback Bowl against a very good SEC opponent. Either way, it would be a chance for a good win to end the season and start next year off right.

At this point, anything short of a 9-3 regular season would be a huge disappointment. There’s no way the Lions will lose at Rutgers, so any other defeat would be a fourth home loss against Wisconsin or Maryland, and losing four times at home when you once were ranked in the top 10 would be disastrous.

So, the glass-half-full perspective says this still could be a 10-3 season, and that wouldn’t be too bad.

A loss to Wisconsin and in the bowl game would mean 8-5, and that would be a lousy finish to what once looked like such a promising season.

What’s interesting to me, really, is looking ahead to next year and how fans feel very, very differently about what could be in store.

I spent a great deal of time Sunday reading and going back and forth with fans on social media, texts and emails. Nothing like a 42-7 loss to one of your biggest rivals to bring out strong opinions from the fan base.

One thing I saw from many of the fans, probably 60 percent, is that, despite what happened Saturday, they are extremely optimistic about next season.

I am not.

Any time I made a point to people about the many concerns that are easy to see for next year, the responses I kept getting were strong and certain that the Lions would be better.

But …

McSorley will be gone. We don’t have any idea if Tommy Stevens can throw the ball. Rahne still will have to prove himself. Franklin has to get much better coaching during games. The defense will lose some key pieces. The Lions have to go to Ohio State and Michigan State.

None of that is me being overly pessimistic. Those are common sense concerns next year, and basically the only counter to them is that the Lions have recruited well and have a lot of good players in the program.

That’s true. Which is why Penn State should be good next year.

But being great, or even better than this year? I don’t see how anyone can be convinced of that right now.

And that’s where we find ourselves at this stage with the program.

There’s nothing wrong with being good. Being in the top 25 every year is feasible, and very desirable.

The issue, as I’ve written several times now, is all about expectations.

Franklin did such a marvelous job that he won a Big Ten title in 2016, well ahead of anyone’s reasonable expectations. But because he already has done that, it threw expectations so far out of whack that Penn State fans are now back to believing the Lions will be in the top 10 every year.

That is and will continue to be ridiculously hard to do, given the division the Lions play in.

All of this is why several of us on the Penn State beat keep pointing out how foolish it was for Franklin to make his “elite” promise five weeks ago. It was, to this point in his tenure, perhaps the biggest mistake he’s made at Penn State.

That promise forever will be held over Franklin’s head until he fulfills it.

After Saturday’s humiliating loss at Michigan and with so many question marks, there’s little reason to believe Penn State is close to becoming an elite program anytime soon.

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Cory Giger covers Penn State football from the Altoona Mirror.

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