No Saquon, no shot? Why Penn State may be live 'dog against Ohio State despite star exodus

Pat Forde

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Penn State dithered for a half against outmanned Illinois last week. The Nittany Lions led by only four at halftime and fell behind early in the third quarter, spawning visions of a season-ruining Friday night fiasco.

Two minutes later, they retook the lead and went on to bury the Illini beneath a fourth-quarter avalanche, 63-24, scoring 42 unanswered points. By the end, the mid-game stress was ancient history. Everyone in blue and white left town happy about a 4-0 record and buzzing about an impending showdown with Ohio State.

The game was something of a metaphor for James Franklin’s entire Penn State tenure: slow start, some concerns, some larger concerns, a brief spasm of panic … and then everything turned. Before long, nobody even remembered that the struggle was momentarily real.

Go back to Oct. 1, 2016. Franklin’s first two Nittany Lions teams had finished 7-6, fanning fan fears that the post-Sandusky scandal recovery would never happen under his leadership. When his third season started 2-2, with a loss to rival Pittsburgh and a 39-point blowout at Michigan, the grumbling became audible enough that athletic director Sandy Barbour issued a statement saying Franklin’s job was safe.

The first game after that, Penn State needed a 40-yard field goal with two seconds left in regulation to tie Minnesota, then won in overtime on a dazzling run by Saquon Barkley. On the precipice of defeat and a 2-3 record and a serious escalation of anti-Franklin noise — that’s when everything turned.

The Nittany Lions would win nine straight, upsetting No. 2 Ohio State and then beating No. 6 Wisconsin for the Big Ten title. They would play an epic Rose Bowl against USC, losing 52-49. And then the next year they would go 11-2, upsetting Washington in the Fiesta Bowl.

Since that 2-2 start to Year Three, Franklin’s record is 24-3. Over the past 27 games, that is just one game worse than Nick Saban (25-2) and the same as Dabo Swinney. In comparison to Big Ten East coaches who are routinely coated in greater hype, Franklin’s record is one game better than Urban Meyer (23-4) and six games better than Jim Harbaugh (18-9).

Penn State head coach James Franklin, left, congratulates quarterback Trace McSorley (9) after scoring against Appalachian State during the first half in State College, Pa., on Sept. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)
Penn State head coach James Franklin, left, congratulates quarterback Trace McSorley (9) after scoring against Appalachian State during the first half in State College, Pa., on Sept. 1, 2018. (AP Photo/Chris Knight)

In short, James Franklin is doing a hell of a job at Penn State. Just as he did a hell of a job at downtrodden Vanderbilt — tying the school record for victories with nine in 2012, then doing it again in ’13.

And yet in August, up popped a CBSSports.com story surveying anonymous FBS coaches about their peers. The story put him at the top of the “most overrated” heap in the sport, alongside Florida State’s Willie Taggart. Twenty percent of the respondents put that label on a guy who had won 89 percent of his games the previous two years.

One anonymous coach on Franklin: “His coaching peers know he is full of it.”

Another: “When [Franklin] got the Penn State job, I thought, ‘Man, he’s a good marketer.’ He did a nice job with that. It’ll be interesting without Saquon.”

That was the latest suspicion from the critics: wait until Franklin doesn’t have a top-three NFL draft pick running and catching the ball, and wait until he doesn’t have star offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead dialing up the plays. Then we’ll see what kind of coach he is.

Here’s your early returns on that: Penn State leads the nation in scoring at 55.5 points per game. Penn State is 10th in the nation in rushing offense at 275 yards per game. Penn State is 15th in the nation in yards per play at 7.25. Penn State has scored more than 50 points in three straight games for the first time in school history. Penn State became just the fourth Big Ten team in the last 100 years to score more than 60 in consecutive games.

Miles Sanders, Barkley’s replacement, ran for 200 yards on the nose against Illinois and is seventh nationally in rushing yards per game. And Ricky Rahne, Moorhead’s replacement, certainly doesn’t seem to be struggling with play-calling and game-planning.

“The biggest thing is that the standard is the standard,” said senior quarterback Trace McSorley. “It doesn’t matter who’s in the game, doesn’t matter who’s calling plays, the standard is the standard. The expectations are the same.

“You talk about great programs, that’s what they do. They’re able to reload and keep going.”

Under Franklin, the reloading isn’t just in recruiting — though that’s been quite successful in and of itself. It’s the coaching staff as well.

Rahne and Brent Pry, the defensive coordinator, have been with Franklin since he started at Vanderbilt. Pry, the linebackers coach, was promoted when Bob Shoop (who also was at Vandy and Penn State) left for Tennessee in 2016. Rahne has been onboard with Franklin since the Vandy days as well.

In addition to Moorhead and Shoop, other Franklin assistants have been in demand elsewhere: former offensive line coach Herb Hand went to Auburn and now is at Texas; and prized recruiter/wide receivers coach Josh Gattis is now at Alabama. Both of those staffers were with Franklin both in Nashville and State College.

Yet the winning, and the continuity, continue. In addition to Rahne and Pry, Franklin still has at least five staffers who have been with him since his Vandy tenure: defensive line coach Sean Spencer; chief of staff and assistant athletic director Jemal Griffin; director of football administration Kevin Threlkel; director of player personnel Andy Frank; and assistant AD for performance enhancement Dwight Galt.

“If you go all the way back to Vanderbilt, this is kind of what we did,” Franklin said. “Some core staff members have been with me the whole time, and when there are opportunities to advance, we advance them. Our way of doing it has weathered the test of time.”

While Moorhead and Barkley have departed, the one rock of crucial continuity since Penn State took off 27 games ago has been McSorley. “When you have a quarterback like we do, who is a winner and has always been a winner, it helps,” Franklin said.

To see McSorley against Illinois on Friday night was to see a version of Baker Mayfield at work. They look very much alike: McSorley is listed at 6-foot, 201 pounds, and probably no taller than 5-foot-11 at most; Mayfield is generously listed at 6-1, 220. They have dark hair, dark eyes, facial hair and a bandanna under the helmet.

They do not play the position the same way — Mayfield is a more refined passer, McSorley more of a dual-threat QB — but they have the same command of their offenses. It is rare to see either of them indecisive — they know where they’re going with the football. But on those occasions when plays break down, both have a flair for improvisation.

And a cockiness component to their competitive nature? Yeah, that’s probably there as well. McSorley is highly unlikely to grab his crotch during a game, but he definitely plays with a fearless confidence.

“There are similarities, I guess,” McSorley said. “Probably more so in energy and emotion. We both play with a lot of passion.”

McSorley already is easily the school’s leader in career touchdown passes, and he could become Penn State’s all-time passing yardage leader as soon as Saturday — he’s less than 300 yards behind Christian Hackenberg now.

When McSorley is done at Penn State, that will be the next hill for James Franklin doubters to defend — what will he do without his three-year starting quarterback? The answer is probably what he’s done every time a star player or top assistant coach has left.

Keep winning.

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