Penn State enters Saturday’s game against Rutgers with a chance to reach 10 wins in a season for the third time in James Franklin’s six seasons as head coach. Sixteen seniors will be saying good-bye to Beaver Stadium with a chance to win their 41st game, the most by any class in the Franklin era.
Considering the 2019 season began with few thinking a young Nittany Lions team could win more than eight games, this is a pretty significant accomplishment. They went 3-2 against opponents that were ranked in the Top 25 the day of the game. First-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford showed that he knew how to lead an offense, though he finishes the regular season at less than 100% health-wise.
So, James Franklin, do you feel underappreciated?
“Me?” he said Tuesday. “Yeah, my wife thinks so.”
He probably didn’t feel appreciation after his team’s 31-26 loss at Minnesota, one that sparked a flood of vitriol on social media. It got so bad that his quarterback received death threats. One week later, after Penn State won a hard-fought, 34-27 decision over Indiana, Franklin opened his postgame news conference by saying, “I want to thank our loyal, positive fans that come out and support us.”
Franklin explained his feelings at his weekly media teleconference, saying his concern is always for others, including his players who walk around campus and his daughters in school.
“That’s kind of how I’m wired,” he said. “I’m getting to a point where I’m getting older, where I’m not one of these guys that can tell you that I don’t care what other people think. I do. I care deeply what other people think. But I am probably getting to a point where I’m pretty confident.”
The 47-year-old coach went on to talk about how everyone affiliated with the program – “the trainers, the doctors, the players, the coaches, the fans, the people in the community” -- should be proud of the team’s achievements athletically and academically.
Senior punter Blake Gillikin, a two-year captain, committed to Franklin when Penn State still was shaking off the effects of its 2012 NCAA sanctions and said, “I think the job he’s done in light of where this program was four or five years ago is absolutely amazing."
“Obviously people see what’s on the field, see the final product, so they don’t really look at other stuff that’s really important, especially as you mature into becoming a man in your four or five years at Penn State,” Gillikin said. “I think he’s really underappreciated and really doesn’t get enough credit for everything he does for this university.”
The critics wonder why the Lions can’t rise to the elite level that Franklin discussed after last year’s one-point loss to Ohio State. Penn State’s 28-17 defeat Saturday at the hands of the Buckeyes dropped Franklin’s record against Top 10 teams to 2-9. His combined record, regardless of ranking, against Ohio State and Michigan is 3-9.
Yet the program has established a consistency in winning. This week marks the 54th in a row that Penn State is ranked in the AP Top 25, the fifth-longest active streak behind Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Oklahoma.
This week’s College Football Playoff ranking has the Nittany Lions at No. 10, the highest of any two-loss Power 5 team, and keeps them in the conversation for a New Year’s 6 bowl. The selection committee thought enough of them that it moved Ohio State to No. 1 after last week.
“Where did most people have us coming into the season, and where are we?” Franklin said. “You look at our consistency. What would you rather have? Would you rather have one year where you spike up and then two average years? If you look, I think the most telling statistic is consistency. If you look at us over the last four years, pretty good.”
With that said, Franklin emphasizes that he doesn’t want it to appear as if he is satisfied “because I can guarantee you I am not.
“I talk to a lot of people in the industry,” he said. “When you talk about comparing rosters, when you talk about programs, when you talk about closing the gap on people, I think we’re doing that. It may not be as fast as everyone would like or our players and coaches would like, but we are doing it. I think we need to have a little bit more of a sense of urgency in some areas. I need to do a better job in some areas.”
For now, however, “we’re in a pretty good place,” the coach said.
Shorter off the roster
Wide receiver Justin Shorter, who was reported Tuesday to have entered the NCAA transfer portal, has been removed from the Penn State roster, meaning he will not play against Rutgers. While a player can practice and play while in the portal, the roster move makes it look likely that Shorter, a five-star recruit when he signed with the Lions for the 2018 class, will be moving on.