James Franklin details one surprising key to Penn State's upset of Ohio State
A statement from the Nittany Lions' athletic director changed everything
James Franklin asked Penn State fans to "take a deep breath" and trust the process after a 49-10 loss to Michigan on Sept. 24. For rabid fans seeking a return to glory, watching the 10th-highest paid coach in college football lose by 39 points in his third year was difficult to swallow.
Franklin was never in any danger of losing his job. Given the NCAA penalties and negativity surrounding the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, Franklin won as many games in his first two years as could be reasonably expected.
Still, the noise about his job status persisted in some media reports. Twice during the two weeks after the Michigan loss, Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour emphatically supported Franklin publicly, saying "there's no doubt" he will be the Nittany Lions' coach for the long term.
Franklin said Thursday that Barbour's comments were so strong they helped the Nittany Lions upset No. 2 Ohio State last week. The shocking result, aided by a blocked field goal and blocked punt, was a signature win for Franklin and finally gave Penn State fans something good to feel about.
Suddenly, it's possible to envision Penn State winning nine or 10 games given its remaining schedule (Purdue, Iowa, Indiana, Rutgers, Michigan State) and the return of key players from injuries. Make no mistake: The Nittany Lions are still a work in progress, ranking 65th nationally in scoring offense and 64th in scoring defense.
Franklin said he never felt his job was at stake when speaking with administrators or boosters, but he thought questions raised in the media since last year continued to impact recruiting and even current players.
"In most cases, it's not necessarily a good thing [for the AD to give a vote of confidence] because it doesn't always mean a whole lot," Franklin said. "But I thought what Sandy said was powerful, that not only is he not on the hot seat now, he won't be in December, which is a strong statement -- probably stronger than most ADs typically say.
"And the only reason we did it was not anything that made us feel better internally, but it was to stop whatever media reports were stating these things. I don't think last Saturday night happens without that. Here's what happens: Your players are reading that, everybody is reading those things. It took a distraction away, and it kept people focused on what's going on."
Understandably, public support from ADs is often characterized as "the dreaded vote of confidence," because either the remarks really don't mean anything or things are so bad they have to be spoken in the first place.
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly expressed disappointment that his AD, Jack Swarbrick, felt the need to publicly endorse Kelly. Swarbrick said Notre Dame would be led out of the tunnel next year by Kelly, who has a 2-5 record and said he didn't ask for the support but understood why his AD provided it.
In Penn State's case, Barbour said she makes her opinions very clear and spoke out because the community needs to focus on the team.
"Certainly some of the negative recruiting going on, either around James' status or around our status with the NCAA or Big Ten [related to recruiting rumors associated with the Sandusky scandal], is a bunch of a bunk," Barbour said.
After starting 2-2, Penn State has won three straight games since Barbour's comments. Of course, her remarks aren't the only reason. At one point, Penn State was on its fifth-string middle linebacker due to a rash of injuries. All three starting linebackers missed the Michigan game.
The return of starters Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell helped fuel the Nittany Lions' upset of Ohio State. Cabinda had not played since Week 1 due to an unspecified left hand injury, and Bell suffered an undisclosed injury in Week 2.
Against the Buckeyes, Bell made 18 tackles, one sack and one pass breakup, while Cabinda had 13 tackles, one sack, another tackle for loss and one pass breakup. Not bad for linebackers Penn State planned to play only 25-30 snaps. Bell played 69 snaps and Cabinda in the high 50s or low 60s, Franklin said.
"As much as we plan, as much as we organize, [defensive coordinator Brent] Pry just felt like they were playing well and it didn't make sense to take them off the field," Franklin said. "Obviously, we were communicating with them to see how they were feeling and they were feeling good."
The most eye-opening part of Saturday was how Penn State's defensive line controlled Ohio State up front, affecting J.T. Barrett in the passing game. It's debatable how much of that is due to Ohio State's weakness on the offensive line -- it's a position of growing concern for the Buckeyes -- and how much is due to Penn State's defensive line.
Defensive end Garrett Sickels, who was suspended for the first half because Franklin said he missed some classes, had nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and another tackle for loss. Sickels was the first player to hug Franklin on the sideline after the win.
"The D-line is starting to grow up," Franklin said. "It's a combination of a young team maturing and getting some young guys back at the right time."
Franklin made a calculated decision his first two years by redshirting most of his freshmen. Penn State's scholarships had been reduced by the NCAA to 65 in 2014 and 75 in 2015.
"A lot of people in that position would have just played all those freshmen and burn their shirts whether they have significant roles or not," Franklin said. "We're just going to keep sticking to the plan, build this for the long term, not make any shortsighted decisions and build a consistent winner."
Still, there's no doubt Penn State and Franklin needed a night like Saturday. Franklin's brother-in-law died of cancer four days before the Ohio State game, and the coach spoke emotionally afterward about his niece and nephew, who lost their father.
"It was just a crazy, crazy week," said Franklin, who also had his basement flooded due to heavy rain. "It was a rollercoaster."
Meanwhile, the Sandusky scandal still lingers at Penn State, as does Joe Paterno's legacy. Even after the glow of the Ohio State win, Penn State is currently on trial over a whistleblower lawsuit brought by former assistant Mike McQueary, who is seeking $4 million for lost wages and damages.
"This community has been through a lot the last five years," Franklin said. "That win [over Ohio State] was important. I know I'm biased, but I believe that a football team can bring a community together like nothing else."
Before beating Ohio State, the most attention Penn State received this season was strong public blowback for a Sept. 17 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Paterno's first game. Barbour said this week that the commemoration was "the right thing to do" and that it was "very measured."
"I think our challenge is the extremes out there, and that any time we recognize Coach Paterno for his contributions -- not only to Penn State athletics but to the institutions and community -- the victims' advocates believe that we're doing a disservice to the victims," Barbour said. "We're certainly not trying to be insensitive, and I think Penn State has done phenomenal work around victims' advocacy and research around child abuse.
"And the opposite is true that when we make those comments and we make efforts around victims, that gets viewed as a poke in the arm to Coach Paterno and all that he did. And neither of those are true. We have to figure out a way for those to co-exist. We need the Penn State community. Obviously, the Penn State community is largely populated by those who recognize the very positive things Coach Paterno did for our community."
At some point, Penn State plans to start a fundraising campaign to renovate Beaver Stadium. Beating Ohio State certainly can't hurt raising money.
"I think people have felt good about the direction of the program off the field, and when they feel good about that final piece [wins], the fundraising is a little bit easier," Barbour said. "But we're not there yet. My anticipation all along has been when we get there a year from now, or whenever it may be, our program is in better shape. I've seen this trajectory coming. Did I see Saturday night coming? I don't know about that. I think this is just the beginning."
On Saturday night in Happy Valley, there was genuine happiness again from 107,000 fans dressed in a whiteout. The experience was viewed in person by 180 recruits (six on official visits), including about 60 with offers from Penn State and 90 with Division I offers.
"It's hard to be in that stadium -- watch the team run on the field, tailgating everywhere, people having fun, the fireworks go off, and the fans rush the field with crazy excitement -- and not get caught up in that," Franklin said.
Franklin finally has a signature moment to sell, thanks in part to an assist from his athletic director.
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