Franklin's Penn State honeymoon over
James Franklin's Penn State honeymoon is over.
It officially ended this weekend.
It started on Saturday, when Franklin's Nittany Lions were humbled on national television by Michigan State, 55-16. It was PSU's third straight loss to end the regular season
It continued Sunday afternoon, when Franklin fired his offensive coordinator, John Donovan, a decision that had to be particularly difficult to make. After all, Franklin and Donovan had longtime coaching ties and Donovan had been Franklin's OC since 2011, first at Vanderbilt and later at PSU. Donovan, however, paid the price for an offense that has struggled mightily in Franklin's two seasons at PSU. Some have called Donovan a scapegoat.
A few hours later, four-star cornerback Lavert Hill from Detroit, Michigan, announced that he is reopening his recruitment after previously giving a verbal commitment to the Lions.
To call it a bad-news weekend would be a serious understatement.
During his first two years in Happy Valley, Franklin has basically been given a free pass by nearly everyone — the fans, the media and the PSU administration. When he arrived, the program was still living under the long shadows of the Sandusky scandal and the draconian sanctions imposed by the NCAA.
Franklin has continually mentioned the scandal and sanctions while trying to low-ball expectations for the program.
Now, two years later, the scandal is fading further into the past and the sanctions have been lifted.
Quite frankly, there will be no more excuses.
Starting next fall, Franklin must start to produce and the program must show improvement.
A strong argument can be made that the Lions have made little, if any, progress under Franklin. In fact, they may have regressed a little since Bill O'Brien left for the NFL.
In O'Brien's two years, PSU went 15-9. In his final game, the Lions stunned No. 15 Wisconsin on the road, 31-24. The Badgers entered as a 24-point favorite.
Franklin, meanwhile, is 14-11 in two years at PSU and is winless vs. ranked foes. It's not a particularly impressive resume. Not surprisingly, attendance was down about 2 percent this season at Beaver Stadium.
While O'Brien's teams seemed to overachieve, in relation to their talents, Franklin's squads have underachieved.
Even some former Nittany Lions are getting restless. Todd Blackledge, an ABC analyst and the quarterback for the 1982 national title team, called Saturday's performance vs. Michigan State "downright embarrassing" on Twitter. A couple of other former Lions joined in with critical Tweets. Ex-defensive end Brad Bars said he was “tired of watching this trash,” while past Rimington Award-winning center A.Q. Shipley lamented how it “sucks watching a suspect product.”
Many PSU fans have used even more colorful language in their criticism of Franklin.
Yes, there is no doubt that Franklin is starting to feel a little heat. That's why Donovan is gone and some other coaching changes are rumored to follow.
Look, almost no one expects the Lions to win the Big Ten championship in 2016. Still, the Lions do need to show at least a little improvement — something like eight regular-season wins, a victory over a ranked team and at least being more competitive against Big Ten East Division powers Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan. Those three teams pounded PSU this season by a combined 79 points — a margin of 26.3 points per loss.
There is no doubt that Franklin can recruit. He's a great salesman. His first recruiting class in 2014 was ranked in the top 25 in the nation, while last year's class was rated among the top 15. This year's class, even with Hill's decommitment, is a solid top-10 class. But those recruits need to start producing top-25 results.
The bottom line: Franklin must prove he can coach as well as he recruits, and it needs to start next year.
Franklin's job does not appear to be jeopardy anytime soon. The six-year contract that he signed in 2014 pays him more than $4 million per year. That likely assures that he'll lead the PSU program for at least a couple more seasons.
If those two years feature more of what we've seen in the last two seasons, however, the heat that Franklin is feeling now may turn into a raging inferno.
Franklin simply has no more excuses. He must produce results, and soon.
Because the honeymoon is most definitely over.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.