Penn State head coach James Franklin has a lot going on trying to reverse the fortunes of the Nittany Lions from their stunning 0-4 start while keeping players, coaches, and staff healthy in the middle of the menacing coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not an easy task. Over the last four weeks, Franklin has received many questions asking why the Lions are off to their worst record after four games since 2001. In his answers, he has said on more than one occasion that he’s trying to walk that fine line in explaining what’s going on without sounding like he’s making excuses.
“Ultimately, we’re responsible for what we put out there on the field and everything that comes with that, and I’m responsible,” he said last week.
Franklin, his fans, and yes, his critics hope that the Lions can pick up that elusive first win on Saturday at Beaver Stadium against Iowa (2-2). But one of the matters complicating the Lions’ preparation for the game deals with a number of false positives that have surfaced in the daily COVID testing all Big Ten teams must undergo.
Franklin said Wednesday night the number of false positives in his program has risen to 43, an issue he calls “an emotional roller coaster.” Two members of his staff, cornerbacks coach Terry Smith and defensive coordinator Brent Pry, have missed practice time this week while awaiting results of their retests.
“We continue to have issues with false positives, and we can’t seem to get a whole lot of feedback and support to get answers to it,” he said. “For about a month, we’ve been trying to figure out why we’re having so many. We’re up to 43 so that’s 43 people in our football program that have missed practices.
“Knock on wood, and thank God, we’re not having COVID positives where one or two guys are missing long periods of time. But we’re constantly missing players and staff from practices and meetings and work all day. So it’s just a lot of different moving parts right now.”
According to Big Ten Conference protocols, a positive rapid antigen test result is confirmed with a PCR test. The athlete or coach can get back to practice and competition if the PCR test comes back negative, but a positive test would result in a 21-day quarantine.
While his No. 1 priority is to keep everyone in his program healthy, Franklin’s priority No. 1-A is getting his football team back to the ways that produced 42 victories in the previous four seasons. He is convinced that things are going to get better.
“I’m trying to help us navigate through these times that none of us have been through before ,” Franklin said. “That is specific to football, but that also is family issues, that’s COVID issues, that is academic issues, that’s normal growing pains of 18-to-22-year-old young men.
“It’s all of it and that’s my job and my responsibility as the head coach to support everybody and give direction and give a path and get people excited and motivated during a time when that’s challenging to do. But I also try to remind myself every single day how blessed I am and how fortunate I am now.”
Franklin sees some good in the way the Nittany Lions rallied after going down 27-6 at halftime last week at Nebraska, that it proves that his players “care deeply about one another.” Penn State had two chances to tie the game in the fourth quarter but drives stalled twice inside the Cornhuskers’ 15.
The Lions are hosting an Iowa team they have defeated six straight times. Players have talked about how the momentum from last week’s second-half comeback has carried into practice, and they hope into the game, so they can break into the win column.
Franklin said while he feels the program has done a good job of keeping everyone healthy, “we’ve got to do a much better job” of playing good football.
“We are being tested right now,” he said. “We are being challenged. And we plan to answer the test and we plan to grow from this. It doesn’t always feel like it at the time, but I believe good will come from this for my program, for our players, for myself. It doesn’t feel it at the time. But I’m going to use this as an opportunity to get better and grow.”