James Franklin’s maddening blunder costs Penn State again

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James Franklin is a very good coach. He’s an excellent recruiter and talent developer. He’s also come up maddeningly short in big spots.

Saturday night was just the latest example of his shortcomings, his decision not to take three knees up a point with 1:46 remaining, in possession of the ball and the opposition with just one timeout left.

It wound up costing Penn State it’s opener, a gut-punch of a 36-35 loss in overtime that deals the Nittany Lions’ playoff hopes a severe blow. Devyn Ford scored on a 14-yard touchdown run, giving Indiana a chance to tie it, an opportunity it may not have had otherwise. The Hoosiers won it in overtime — their first top-10 win since 1987 — on quarterback Michael Penix’s two-point conversion run that may or may not have been the right call as it appeared his left arm may have been out of bounds before the ball crossed the plane of the goal line.

It should never have gotten to that point. Afterwards, Franklin said, “It’s my job to make sure everyone understands those situations, and obviously right there, that didn’t happen.” Ford clearly wasn’t aware of it until it was too late, and he had scored a touchdown. It was a risk not worth taking.

Instead of a feel-good, come-from-behind win, Penn State starts this shortened season with a brutal loss, the kind of defeat it has been unable to escape under Franklin, the type of loss that has somewhat overshadowed all the good he has done.

I wrote that very sentence in this space a few weeks ago. Franklin has elevated Penn State. He has led the program back into the national conversation. It has won 11 games three of the previous four years.

But the Nittany Lions have failed to take the next step. They haven’t gone from good to great because of their inability to win close games like this one. Last year, there was a five-point loss at Minnesota. The year before, losses to Michigan State and Ohio State by a combined five points. And the year before, losses to the same two teams by four points.

Part of that is on Franklin’s game-management issues. Some of it is on execution. Both were factors against the Hoosiers. Franklin didn’t have his team ready to play, trailing 17-7 at halftime. It missed three field goals. It out-gained Indiana more than two to one, 488-211, and yet still suffered the damaging upset.

This game wasn’t merely lost on the botched play late in regulation, but at that point, the game was won. A coach has to put his players in the best position to win. That’s the job. At times, that hasn’t happened under Franklin’s watch at Penn State. That’s why this program has failed to take the next step from good to great.

Now, unless Penn State can knock off Ohio State on Saturday, its playoff hopes are all but over. So is a shot at the Big Ten East title. Already, this season has gone sideways for the Nittany Lions with a loss that Franklin won’t be able to shake anytime soon. It will be part of his résumé.

Getting a Greg up

Hand up, I was lukewarm on the return of Greg Schiano. I didn’t quite get the obsession with Rutgers fans wanting so desperately to bring him back. Trying to recreate past success often backfires. I understand better now. To be honest, I was somewhat sold after his introductory press conference, the enthusiasm he showed that day, the fire he had in discussing the state school. It was apparent in the kind of coaching staff he put together and the strong start it has gottten off to on the recruiting trail. It was flat-out obvious on Saturday that this has a strong chance of working out well, Schiano leading heavy-underdog Rutgers to a resounding 38-27 victory at Michigan State, snapping a 21-game Big Ten losing streak. Look, the Spartans may not be any good. It was just one game. But all Schiano needs is a modicum of success this year, to show recruits and coaches the possibilities. With that in mind, he couldn’t have gotten off to a better start.

Hit & Mich’

From Jake Rudock to Wilton Speight to Shea Patterson, Jim Harbaugh’s five seasons at Michigan have been typified by underwhelming quarterback play. It has held back a talented program that has failed to reach lofty expectations. Joe Milton may be different. He waited his turn in Ann Arbor, and looked capable of being The Guy on Saturday night, producing 277 yards and two touchdowns in an impressive win at Minnesota. The junior, a former four-star recruit, was able to complete 15 of 22 passes to nine different receivers and also run for 52 yards, showcasing his ability to hurt a defense in multiple ways. Harbaugh may finally have his quarterback, which would give the Wolverines a leg up on their recent teams.

Top 10

1. Alabama (5-0) (Last week: 2)

Jaylen Waddle’s season-ending ankle injury is bad for Alabama and bad for college football. One of the sport’s premier gamebreakers, Waddle is a treat to watch and his loss is a significant blow to the Crimson Tide.

2. Clemson (6-0) (2)

Three of the past four years Syracuse has either beaten Clemson or put a scare into the ACC powerhouse, as it did on Saturday, trailing by just six points late in the third quarter before Trevor Lawrence and Co. pulled away. The oddsmakers should’ve considered that when making Clemson 46-point favorites.

3. Ohio State (1-0) (3)

As expected, the offense is electric and the defense has work to do. There weren’t any real surprises in the Buckeyes’ 52-17 rout of Nebraska.

4. Georgia (3-1) (4)

Stetson Bennett remains Georgia’s quarterback. Struggle against Kentucky and that changes, especially with Florida coming up the following Saturday.

5. Notre Dame (5-0) (6)

I’m still not sold on the Irish as a playoff contender, but they at least looked like a potential threat in a 45-3 pasting of Pittsburgh after consecutive underwhelming wins.

6. Florida (2-1) (7)

After the COVID-19 breakout led to consecutive postponements, the Gators get a soft landing spot at home against Missouri. Let’s just say they won’t be packing the swamp, as coach Dan Mullen foolishly suggested prior to the spread of the virus within his program.

7. Cincinnati (4-0) (8)

Pay attention, College Football Playoff committee. Cincinnati’s manhandling of SMU warrants your focus.

8. Oklahoma State (4-0) (9)

The offense has yet to take off and the Cowboys are still undefeated, a nod to the surprising defense that is allowing just 9.0 points per game, the third-fewest in the country.

9. Texas A&M (3-1) (10)

With road games remaining against Tennessee, Auburn and South Carolina, and LSU highlighting the home schedule, don’t be surprised if the Aggies win out.

10. Michigan (1-0) (NR)

Does Jim Harbaugh finally have a potent offense? For one night, it looked like it, as Michigan rolled up 478 yards of offense in a one-sided win at Minnesota.

Dropped out: Penn State (0-1)

Heisman Watch (in alphabetical order)

RB Travis Etienne, Clemson

Three rushing touchdowns, two in the fourth quarter to put Syracuse away, and 106 total yards for the future Sunday star.

QB Justin Fields, Ohio State

That’s how you kick off a Heisman campaign, by connecting on 20 of 21 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns, and running for another 54 yards and a score.

QB Mac Jones, Alabama

The awesome numbers continue for Jones as he threw for 387 yards on 25 of 31 passing in a blowout of Tennessee.

QB Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

This wasn’t his best performance — two touchdowns, an interception and season-low 62.8 completion percentage in a win over Syracuse — but it won’t hurt him too much, either.

QB Kyle Trask, Florida

The senior was off to a fantastic start, throwing 14 touchdowns, one interception and completing 71.8 percent of his passes, before the Gators’ COVID-19-induced layoff.

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