In the grand scheme of things, Penn State’s loss to Pittsburgh this weekend was just one game.
Head coach James Franklin downplayed the renewed rivalry before the contest, and he more than likely hopes that the 42-39 loss will be nothing more than a blip on the radar when looking back at the season.
His Nittany Lions still have opportunity to turn things around and erase the bad memory. One win doesn’t make a season and one loss doesn’t necessarily break it.
That’s the optimistic way of looking at PSU’s situation, but optimism doesn’t necessarily fit the vibe in State College entering Week 3.
Franklin came into this season on the hot seat, and a tough loss to an in-state rival isn’t going to cool the flames. Yes, the last time the two programs played each other was in 2000. Yes, PSU did make it a game and almost pulled off the comeback — the Nittany Lions were down 28-7 until late in the second quarter — but close is not good enough for Penn State.
Not for a program that’s trying to rebuild a national brand after a terrible, debilitating scandal.
Not for a coach who was seen as one of the best in the country, and a steal for Penn State, when the school lured him away from a Vanderbilt program he was building into something competitive.
Close is not good enough. Not in year three.
So what if PSU put up 402 yards of total offense on a good Pitt defense? So what if sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley looked like the real deal at times? So what if Saquon Barkley put the team on his back with four touchdowns?
It all came down to one play for PSU, and when push came to shove, it wasn’t good enough:
For McSorley, a redshirt sophomore from Ashburn, Virginia, the hope is that this is a learning experience. The game was only his second start, and that’s simply a throw he can’t make again if he wants to continue to be a big-time starting quarterback.
Situationally, there was no reason for him to throw up that football.
It was 2nd and 9 from the Pitt 31 and the Nittany Lions still had 2:15 to work with on the clock. PSU still had time to work the whole field and call a few plays. The team easily could have gotten much closer to the end zone to set up a better game-winning shot, and of course, there was always special teams. Though Franklin and his team were undoubtedly playing for the win, a quarterback has to keep in mind that a field goal isn’t the end of the world. At the very least, Penn State would have had a chance to extend the game and maybe even win it in overtime, so there was no need to force that pass.
“Obviously, we can’t throw the ball up where we threw it,” Franklin said after the game, per Mark Wogenrich of The Baltimore Sun. “But on that route, we ran the wrong route, and then we didn’t go fight to break up the interception.”
Will The Real James Franklin Please Stand Up?
Though his fateful throw will be a learning moment for McSorley — a man who has a bright future — Franklin won’t be afforded many more “moments” to make his mark at Penn State.
His record as PSU head coach now sits at 15-13. His first two seasons have produced mediocre 7-6 campaigns, and this season won’t get any easier. This week, Penn State plays a Temple team that beat the Blue and White, 27-10, to kick off last season. The Nittany Lions have to travel to Ann Arbor to play Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Wolverines in Week 4.
Games against Top 25 opponents Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State also loom large on Penn State’s schedule, so if something doesn’t click quickly for Franklin and his team, it’s a very real possibility that 2016 could be another average season.
That’s not good enough.
The Nittany Lions showed heart and fight to come back against Pitt, and they’ll need those virtues in order to make this season a success. Franklin may have to develop a little attitude of his own in order to keep his current job.
Is he the coach who led Vanderbilt to two 9-4 seasons in a row along with two bowl wins, or is he just another coach who peaked too early?
We’ll find out who the real James Franklin is soon enough.