OT loss worst of Franklin tenure
UNIVERSITY PARK — We’ve now witnessed the low point of James Franklin’s eight-year Penn State tenure.
As a 24-point favorite, fresh from a bye week, the Nittany Lions lost to Illinois, 20-18, in a torturous nine-overtime game (NCAA record) Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
The team that deserved to win did, as Illinois, which arrived with one of the nation’s worst offenses and still hasn’t scored in the first quarter this year, totally outplayed and outcoached Penn State.
The Lions were bludgeoned by a punishing Illinois running game that racked up 357 yards on the ground, stuffing the ball down Penn State’s proverbial throat.
That’s hard to do without a passing game, but Illinois did it. Despite throwing for just 38 yards and being totally one-dimensional, the Illini kept the Lions’ offense off the field by dominating time of possession.
When it got into the new one-play format at the 3 from the third overtime on, Penn State and its coveted offensive coordinator went 1-for-7. The Lions also went 4-for-17 on third down.
“There were plenty of opportunities for us to end it, and either we did not execute, or we did not make plays,” Franklin said.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but it starts with Franklin, and he knew it.
“Obviously, we did not have our guys ready to play,” he said. “I did not today.”
Penn State couldn’t be its big-play self in part because quarterback Sean Clifford, knocked out of the game two weeks ago at Iowa, was not 100 percent, though he did start and went the distance.
Clifford was discouraged from running much – a key component of his offense over the past three years.
“We had to be smart,” Franklin said. “He was limited today, that’s why we tried to mix the run and the pass in there to take some of that off him. (But) we felt like Sean gave us the best opportunity to win.”
Except he didn’t. Clifford’s timing was off and he was naturally reluctant to be hit.
Franklin should have started Ta’Quan Roberson and, if necessary, then inserted Clifford, which would have energized a home crowd that was snoring.
Though Roberson took many of the practice snaps through the open date, there apparently was such little confidence in him after his line of scrimmage struggles at Iowa that he wasn’t rationed a single snap.
The other huge issue that is holding the program back is the play of the offensive line.
Take Saturday. On the Lions’ very first play, Keyvone Lee was dumped for a 3-yard loss. Clifford was also sacked on the Nits’ first series.
There were other short-yardage failures, like in the second overtime when, down 16-13 and needing a touchdown to win, a third-and-2 at the Illinois 17 was blown up, and the Lions settled for a field goal that pushed the game further into eternity.
Illinois had eight tackles for loss, roughly the Lions’ per-game average, because their line keeps getting eaten at the point of attack.
Franklin doesn’t like to use injuries as an excuse, but it didn’t take him long to do so.
“We just have way too many guys that played significant roles in that game that did not practice or did not practice full speed and full-go all week long,” he said, “and Sean was one of those guys.”
Beyond their lack of toughness – not to mention their inability to make the clutch play when it mattered most (like the game-clinching interception Jaquan Brisker dropped) – there’s something else missing from the Nittany Lions.
Too often, when they lose, they sulk, starting with Franklin.
He’s fine when things are going well and he high-fives the world and thanks the media for coming, but he’s not the same guy when adversity hits – during games or between games.
In his eight seasons, the Lions are 3-5 after they’ve absorbed their first loss, meaning they often let a team (such as Iowa) beat them twice.
They also don’t use down time well, evidenced by a 3-6 record following bye weeks.
Add this game to the long list of come-from-ahead losses because the Lions either ran out of gas or couldn’t put the opponent away in the fourth quarter – usually with a running game.
And what timing.
Three weeks ago, Penn State stood at 5-0, ranked No. 4 in the country and could envision an anticipated matchup this Saturday in Columbus.
As the Nittany Lions lick their wounds, with an injured quarterback, that now looms as a potential beatdown.
Rudel can be reached at email@example.com.