Franklin can’t run from reality
James Franklin curtly interrupted a post-game questioner Saturday about Penn State not producing a 100-yard rusher this season.
“Year’s not over,” he shot back.
Well, yes, James, it is.
The Nittany Lions’ 30-27 loss in the snow to Michigan State at Spartan Stadium doesn’t preclude a bowl trip, but it sucked the last bit of life out of the program and for sure the fan base for 2021.
Maybe Franklin wants to go into some John Belushi rant – “Over? It’s not over until we say it is!”
The reality is this team will begin to be dismantled as early as today.
Likely, there will be changes in the coaching staff–voluntarily, by Franklin’s decision or by other opportunity (is this the year Brent Pry moves on?) And certainly players will make decisions on whether to focus on the NFL, or move to the transfer portal.
Should Jahan Dotson or Jaquan Brisker risk first-round status to play in the Dec. 30 Las Vegas Bowl that starts at 10:30 p.m. Eastern time?
No one could blame either if they said, “It’s been fun, but now we’re done.”
Those still on board will attempt to avoid a sixth loss in the last eight games since the 5-0 start and No. 4 ranking that blew up in Iowa and has been smoldering since.
At least the game plan in a bowl game will be easily understood. Get the lead – like they Nits had in every game this year – try to figure out what plays to call on short-yardage when the running game won’t work, watch as Sean Clifford does everything he can and then hold their breath as the defense is on the field too long.
And hope the team is ready to play like it wasn’t in East Lansing, when Sparty drove 76 yards and then 99 yards – after a great effort by Lion gunner Drew Hartlaub pinned MSU at the 1 – on their first two series to go up 14-0.
Penn State’s defense didn’t tackle well early or late, managed zero sacks on Payton Thorne, yielded the game-clinching touchdown pass without much pressure and couldn’t contain workhorse running back Kenneth Walker (138 yards).
And that was the most effective of the Lions’ units as Daequan Hardy’s Pick-6 gave the Lions a 20-17 lead in the third quarter.
Offensively, Penn State couldn’t run because its offensive line doesn’t block for the run.
Though he was sacked four times, Clifford generally had time and began carving up the Spartans’ pass defense, ranked worst in the Big Ten, by hitting Dotson and Parker Washington, who were both outstanding, combining for 12 catches 197 yards and three touchdowns.
But with the game in the balance, and Penn State trailing 23-20 with eight minutes left, the Lions faced a third-and-1 at midfield. Keep in mind to this point, Penn State was just 1-of-4 on second, third or fourth and short.
That includes the previous botched play on second down, plus it had converted its last two third or fourth downs by going to Dotson.
What’s the call? Keyvone Lee up the middle. He was stuffed and fumbled and Michigan State converted the miscue into a touchdown and a 30-20 lead with 5:10 to go, effectively ending the game.
Lee had three rushes of zero yards in the fourth quarter and four of one yard or less.
Back to Franklin.
“I want to be able to run the ball,” he said of his strategy. ” We were trying to mix the run game all day long. Trying to help our O-linemen in the protection, but we obviously weren’t able to run the ball consistently.”
At this point in the season, Franklin should have conceded the run game doesn’t cut it and just tried to win the game and work on the big picture later.
Did I mention that Penn State twice punted on fourth-and-1 in the first half from midfield because it had no confidence in its line or running game? So why now, on a snow covered field with a back from Florida (Lee) who said he never played in the snow before, do the Lions go away from their best player, Dotson?
Clifford said he runs the plays that are called. He did offer, “I think that our team honestly is way better than our record is. But it we didn’t win, so it doesn’t really matter.”
In assessing this season – whenever he thinks it will actually be over – Franklin will need to address his team’s offensive line and run game failures, its recruiting and developing of linemen and his strength program, all of which tie together in the Lions’ inability to close out games.
And fresh from signing his 10-year, $75 million contract that apparently had to be done during the season, one thing’s for sure: Penn State is definitely paying him to provide the answers.
Rudel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.