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Can James Franklin and Penn State Close the Gap on Big Ten’s Elite?

Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire

University Park, PA – Given all the sanctions and acrimony that Penn State has endured in recent years, head coach James Franklin has led the Nittany Lions to bowl games and two straight winning records in his first two years as a head coach in Happy Valley.

For a lot of programs, especially those coming off NCAA sanctions, that’s a good pretty start.

But for a storied program like Penn State, that’s not nearly enough for its rabid fans and alumni—and not even close to the elite level the Lions were at during the Joe Paterno years.

Penn State’s blowout losses to Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan are an indication of just how far Franklin and his staff have to go be at an elite level. In his first two years, PSU’s head coach is 0-6 against those aforementioned programs. If you throw Northwestern and Temple in the mix, all of Penn State’s losses this season have come against teams ranked in the AP Top 25.

After the Nittany Lions 55-16 beat down at the hands of Michigan State, former Penn State players expressed their dissatisfaction of the team’s progress under Franklin. F

ormer Penn State quarterback and ESPN television analyst Todd Blackledge tweeted: “Signing off from Twitter for awhile, but what I just witness by James Franklin led Penn State was downright embarrassing! C’mon, man.”

Another tweet from a former player read:

Patience is definitely not the operative word here for Franklin and his coaching staff. Penn State fans and alumni, blinded by the monumental success of the Joe-Pa years, are not buying into the very legitimate notion that the Nittany Lions are still recovering from the scholarship reductions that came from the NCAA sanctions. The PSU fan base is also not trying to hear about the myriad of injuries along the offensive and defensive lines that hampered the team throughout the season. Against Michigan State, Penn State didn’t have defensive ends Carl Nassib and Garrett Sickels. Nassib was in the game for the first two plays before leaving because of a possible lingering injury.

What fans can point to as the source of their ire against Franklin is the fact that Penn State’s offense was among the worse in the country. The Nittany Lions were 101st among FBS teams in scoring offense, averaging 23 points per game and 106th in rushing, averaging 135 yards per game. Penn State ranked 125th in the nation in third down conversions at 28 percent.

It was so bad that Franklin fired his long-time offensive coordinator John Donovan at the end of the season. PSU was inconsistent on offense and struggled at protecting quarterback Christian Hackeberg at times, though it was much better than last season.

But before you start running Franklin out of a town on a rail, there are a few signs that would lead one to believe that things are going in the right direction.

    • Nassib, a senior, was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year while six other players garnered All-Big Ten defensive honors
    • On offense, freshman running back Saquon Barkley set a single-season rushing record for freshman by gaining 1,007 yards. He was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year.
    • Franklin, who is known as a good recruiter, is still in the midst of putting his stamp on the program. He is still coaching players from Bill O’Brien’s time at Penn State. Fans don’t like to hear or read this, but it’s going to take some for Franklin to get the talent he needs to put the Nittany Lions on the same level as the Ohio States and Michigan States of the conference. Keep in mind, per the industry generated 247Sports Composite, PSU’s 2016 recruiting class is ranked No. 8 nationally and No. 3 in the Big Ten.
19 September 2015:  Penn State RB Saquon Barkley (26) rushed for 195 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Rutgers Scarlett Knights 28-3 at Beaver Stadium in State College, PA.

19 September 2015: Penn State RB Saquon Barkley (26) rushed for 195 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Penn State Nittany Lions defeated the Rutgers Scarlett Knights 28-3 at Beaver Stadium in State College, PA.

It’s not going to happen overnight or even after two seasons, but explaining that to Penn State fans and alumni is a case of trying to find logic in a situation that steadfastly resists it. Winning the bowl game would nice for Franklin and the Penn State program, but the kind of progress that will satisfy alumni and a fan base longing for the glory days  will be if Penn State can beat Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, or a ranked team on their schedule next season.

After this season, Franklin knows he has a high mountain to climb to bring back the glory that was once Penn State football.

For him, the journey to get there is the hard part.

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