How James Franklin transformed Penn State into a Big Ten heavyweight
What a difference a month can make in college football.
One month into the season, after Penn State was blown out at Michigan, the Nittany Lions were 2-2. AD Sandy Barbour responded by giving third-year coach James Franklin a vote of confidence.
“He's not on the hot seat, and he's not going to be on the hot seat in December,” Barbour told the Altoona Mirror. “James is going to be our football coach. I believe in where this football program is going under James Franklin, and I think he's going to be our football coach, period.”
Since then, the Nittany Lions have vaulted back into the national spotlight. They’ve won five in a row, including a stunning upset of mighty Ohio State. The average margin of victories for those games is more than three touchdowns. All of a sudden, Penn State is staring at the very real chance it goes 10-2 in the regular season, and Franklin is proving, again, why he’s one of the best coaches in college football.
“They are aggressive on defense, opportunistic on offense and Saquon Barkley is a legitimate big-time running back,” said one rival Big Ten coach, who adds that they’re “not afraid to run the QB or take shots downfield when he needs to.”
Going into the season, I thought it was ridiculous that there was any hot seat chatter surrounding Franklin. After all, look what the guy had done at Vandy. He delivered bowl appearances in all three of his seasons there and led the Commodores to Top 25 finishes in his last two years. Keep in mind Vandy hadn't finished in the Top 25 in the previous 75 (!) years prior to Franklin's arrival, and it wasn’t like that program had any momentum since it’d gone 4-20 the previous two years before he showed up. Franklin also didn’t exactly inherit a ripe situation in Happy Valley when you look at the recruiting numbers.
The Nittany Lions, though, have a breakout star in Saquon Barkley, one of Franklin’s first big recruits at Penn State. The sophomore running back’s stats have been a great barometer of Penn State’s season: He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 79 yards per game in the first month of the season. Since then, he’s running for 7.3 yards per pop and 148 per game in the Nittany Lions' last five. He might even run his way into a ticket to New York City for the Heisman presentation and is setting himself up for a serious run at the stiff-arm statue in 2017.
“We’re jelling,” Barkley told FOX Sports Sunday, adding that he thought the turning point for the program came in the second half of the Minnesota game, which the Nittany Lions rallied from a double-digit deficit to win in overtime. “We’re trusting the coaches. We’re trusting each other.”
A staff shake-up that saw Penn State bring in former Fordham head coach Joe Moorhead to run the offense and ex-Minnesota assistant Matt Limegrover to take over the O-line is turning out very well. So is the fact the Nittany Lions finally have their roster numbers back up.
“The biggest thing is when we got here we had nine scholarship O-linemen,” Franklin said, when asked about what triggered this mid-season rise. “Now we have 17. Now we look like a legit Big Ten O-line. Matt Limegrover has been tremendous, and we’re seeing these guys growing up up front. We’ve gotten Trace more involved in the run game.”
Trace is Trace McSorley, PSU’s first-year starting QB, a sophomore who is an ideal fit for Moorhead’s spread attack. The Nittany Lions have incorporated more designed runs into their offense after that first month and McSorley has become more of a factor in the running game. He had 32 yards rushing in the first four games and 259 in the past five. He’s also amassed a 9-0 TD-INT ratio in that stretch.
“That’s probably been the biggest change,” Franklin told FOX Sports. “Trace starting to pull some of those (zone read options). It’s opened everything up.”
McSorley has quietly put together a nice debut season with a 14-3 TD-INT ratio and five more rushing touchdowns. In Big Ten play, only Michigan is averaging more yards per play than PSU’s 6.45. The Nittany Lions also lead the conference in most 40-plus yard plays (18), and they're averaging over 41 points per game over their last four games.
“He kind of reminds me of (former South Carolina standout QB) Connor Shaw,” Franklin said. “He’s a winner. Gritty. A great decision-maker. He didn’t pass the eye-ball test because he was about 6-foot, 205, but he’s athletic, who can hurt you with his feet. Tough. Comes from a great family.”
That toughness has been a consistent theme for what still is an extremely young squad. Keep in mind Penn State has only 12 seniors on its roster and just four of them are starters. Still, a very green team is stepping up late in games. The 5-11, 223-pound Barkley, who Franklin credits for taking on a much bigger load in the team’s leadership, has worked diligently to become more physical.
This off-season Barkley set a program-record with a 390-pound power clean. He also had a 600-pound squat to go with a team-best 4.38 40, a 10-foot-1 broad jump and a 380-pound bench, and that added strength and explosiveness is paying off, especially in the second half of games. He is averaging a solid 5.4 yards per carry in the first half this season, but that number jumps to 7.5 in the second half.
Franklin is not surprised. Not by Barkley’s performance or by his team’s.
“I knew we were making progress three years ago,” he said. “I knew we were making progress two years ago. I could see it with our players. I could see it with our staff. I just didn’t know how quickly we were gonna see it in the wins and loss column. I am just really proud of these players and these coaches because I know we are getting better.”