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Does James Franklin Knows What He’s Doing With Penn State’s Offense?

Penn State's Offense Struggling Under James Franklin

In Week 1 of this 2015 college football season, the Fordham Rams traveled to West Point to take on the Army Black Knights. It was, of course, a little-watched affair—one of those games that lives on the distant periphery of College Football Nation.

In other words, it was a game that you probably didn’t watch. Or even know happened.

But in light of what went down in Happy Valley today—specifically, an awful performance from Penn State that saw the Nittany Lions escape (barely) with a 20-14 win over the Knights—what occurred back in Week 1 is notable. Because, you see, in that season-opening showdown between the Knights and the Rams, it was Fordham that emerged victorious.

And there was a fairly simple reason why: The Rams’ offense (a good FCS unit, yes, but an FCS unit nonetheless) was simply too dynamic for Army to stop. Fordham threw for 332 on the day, added another 123 on the ground, and amassed 445 total yards en route to a 37-35 win.

Which is to say, of course, this: Army could not stop the Rams.

But you know what? It had little trouble with the supposedly superior Nittany Lions.

On a day where, in truth, it was only Army’s inability to hold onto the ball (it fumbled six times, losing three) that separated the Knights from a historic win, Penn State amassed all of 264 yards, with just 156 coming through the air. And really, even those numbers look better than what actually went down on the day; at one point in the third quarter, the Nittany Lions had all of 43 yards passing—and were desperately holding on to a six-point lead over a team that, besides losing to (and being pretty much gashed by) FCS-level Fordham, has also lost this season to UConn (giving up 415 yards in the process) and Wake Forest (340 yards), while giving up 473 in its first win of the year, last weekend, against Eastern Michigan.

And yet Penn State—a team with a kid playing quarterback who will supposedly one day be a high NFL draft pick, and a team that, even despite those crushing NCAA sanctions, has recruited among the best classes in the nation over the past two cycles—managed all of 264.

That, my friends, is not good enough. Simply not good enough.

Let me be clear: Penn State was extremely, extremely fortunate to win this game. Army tried the hand the game away with those turnovers, but even taking those mistakes into account, the Knights had the ball in Penn State territory with just over two minutes to go—and had every chance of scoring the touchdown that would have given them the win. The game was there for the taking. The Knights just didn’t grab it.

Give the Penn State defense credit for stepping up and getting the stop when it needed to, sure. And give the whole team credit for getting the win; that is, after all, the entire point.

But we’ve got almost a season and a half worth of evidence now that Penn State’s staff—and, indeed, James Franklin, too—has absolutely no idea what they’re doing on offense. The rapidly regressing Hackenberg may not be quite the talent we thought he was, but it’s clear to anyone who knows anything about football that, at the very least, the kid has a big-time arm. If for no other reason, that makes him a real weapon.

And yet what does Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan do?

Well, for the most part, he dials up a whole array of dink-and-dunk pass calls that barely put that arm to use at all—quick outs, slants that rarely seem to get completed, wide receiver screens, short routes to tight ends that could, if given the chance, actually stretch the field.

Today against the Knights, it was only when his Nittany Lions were completely backed into a corner today that Donovan finally opened up the offense, and when he did, of course, you can predict what happened: Penn State’s superior athletes out-athleted the Knights, Hackenberg delivered a perfectly thrown ball to wideout Chris Godwin to flip the field, and with the Knights suddenly feeling wary of the deep ball, everything opened up. Next came a 33-yard touchdown pass from Hackenberg to tight end Mike Gesicki, and for a couple of minutes, at least, the Beaver Stadium crowd felt some sense of security.

Of course, the Knights would rally.

But they couldn’t quite make the plays down the stretch, and so Penn State—and its apparently confused, overmatched coaching staff—survived with a win. It wasn’t a win they really deserved, though. It really wasn’t.

And if the Nittany Lions keep playing like this, there won’t be many more—or any more—wins to be had this season.

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