STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- James Franklin has often preached patience this season, telling fans and reporters alike that Penn State still needs to recover from the sanctions and remains headed in the right direction.
But, after an 0-7 record against ranked teams the last two years, that patience is wearing thin -- and even former players aren’t sure whether they still trust Franklin’s wait-and-see approach. Former Nittany Lions quarterback Todd Blackledge tweeted that his alma mater was “downright embarrassing” in Saturday’s 55-16 loss to Michigan State. Ex-defensive end Brad Bars said he was “tired of watching this trash.” And past Rimington Award winner A.Q. Shipley opined on how it “sucks watching a suspect product.”
There’s a thin line between an excuse and an explanation, and Franklin’s straddled it all season. He’s alluded to the sanctions every week, hedging his bets Wednesday by saying Penn State would still be “bottom heavy” next year on underclassmen and implying Saturday it doesn’t yet have a full roster.
Franklin isn’t entirely wrong here. The Nittany Lions are still feeling a lingering impact from the sanctions, and nowhere is that more apparent than the offensive line, which has allowed 38 sacks this season. But it’s disingenuous to place all the blame -- or even most of it -- on the sanctions. The problems at Penn State extend beyond that handicap.
Franklin’s decision Sunday to fire offensive coordinator John Donovan was evidence of that.
It’s not easy to decipher where the sanctions end and Penn State’s coaching woes begin. But, first, think about the key pieces to this offense: A quarterback most scouts still see as a second-round NFL draft pick, a running back that Pro Football Focus considers one of the top 10 in the nation, a receiving corps that assistant Josh Gattis called one of the deepest he’s ever coached (six four-star wideouts, including four ESPN 300 prospects), and an offensive line that returned four of five starters.
Sanctions or not, a lack of seniors or not, that doesn’t seem like a terrible lineup on paper. The offensive line is weak but it couldn’t be as bad as the year before, right? Instead, Penn State still managed to rank below Purdue (2-10) and Maryland (3-9) in both total offense and scoring offense this season. (Penn State is No. 108 nationally in total offense and No. 101 in scoring offense.)
Does anyone -- including Franklin -- truly believe that Penn State has less talent on offense than all but 20 teams in the FBS? Should Penn State really be the third-worst team in the country on third downs (28.1 percent conversion rate), one spot behind winless UCF? That’s absurd.
This team has underperformed for two seasons, and it’s not just because of the sanctions. They’ve obviously contributed to the Nittany Lions’ current state, but they’re not entirely responsible for it. Former players are right to question the product on the field.
Former coach Bill O’Brien took on 24-point favorite Wisconsin in the 2013 regular-season finale and still shocked it with a 31-24 win. O’Brien famously shouted in the locker room -- in a sound bite that was played on local radio stations for weeks afterward -- that, “They said that we were 24-point underdogs! 24-point underdogs! What are they going to say now?” By comparison Franklin, who admittedly doesn't understand point spreads, was an 11-point underdog against Michigan State in the regular-season finale and lost by 39. While O’Brien did more with less, Franklin has managed to do less with more.
O’Brien’s Nittany Lions upset No. 22 Wisconsin, while Franklin’s Nittany Lions have been outscored by the Big Ten's best -- Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Northwestern -- by a combined score of 256-116 the last two seasons.
Truthfully, despite all this, Franklin still might be the right guy in Happy Valley. A close win over Northwestern this season or an upset win over Ohio State last season, and these storylines are entirely different.
Franklin is a great recruiter. He’s infused this team with talent, signing a top-25 class in 2014 and a top-15 class in 2015. (He even currently has a top-5 class for the upcoming 2016 class.) He deserves another season to follow through with what he’s built.
But, at the same time, it’s not just the sanctions that are holding this team back -- and it wasn’t just Donovan.