Franklin tries to manage expectations
STATE COLLEGE — Processing expectations of fans who've grown tired of middle-of-the-pack Big Ten finishes is the hardest part of James Franklin's job.
Mostly because the Penn State football coach can't control them, win or lose.
But Franklin can affect his players' preparation heading into the regular season finale against No. 6 Michigan State (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten, No. 6 CFP). Improving a 3-14 mark against Top 25 teams since 2010 would be a good start for a program trying to reestablish itself as one of college football's blue bloods in the wake of NCAA sanctions and heavy coaching turnover the past five seasons.
A win against the Spartans, who've laid an impressive blueprint for program-building in Franklin's eyes, would expedite the process. It's why Franklin insists the Nittany Lions (7-4, 4-3 Big Ten) are playing for more than just a chance to spoil the Spartans' national championship hopes on Saturday.
"We've got a chance to continue to do special things on the field and continue to build our program and our culture and the things that we're doing," Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "A lot of people live and die Penn State football, and it's very, very important to them, so trust me, my staff and our players feel like we're playing for a lot on Saturday and feel like that every single Saturday."
But every loss has felt similar, which is why Franklin's been peppered with questions about his team's perceived lack of progress.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been sacked 81 times in two seasons in an offense that's averaged just 117 rushing yards per game in that span. Although among the least penalized teams in the conference, most of Penn State's infractions have come on offense and on early downs, further bogging down an already slow-starting group.
Meanwhile, special teams continue to be a mess. A lapse in kickoff coverage gave No. 12 Michigan prime field position to mount a game-sealing drive late on Saturday while Penn State's flip-flopped punters the last two seasons and has had to do the same with kickers and return men this season.
"Is it the pace that everybody wants it to be? No, it's not," Franklin said. "But there is progress being made."
A lot of that progress is happening behind the scenes. Franklin sees young players developing — some quicker than others having been forced into a unique situation where true freshmen and seniors alike all started with a a clean slate just a year ago.
"We've had three different offensive systems for our seniors, four defensive systems for our defensive seniors," sophomore linebacker Troy Reeder said. "When our class came in, I can speak defensively, it was our starters still were learning the defense through camp. You know, it's hard for them to teach the young guys when they're trying to learn it themselves."
On the field, Franklin points to incremental improvements as evidence that all has not been for naught.
Sparked by Saquon Barkley's emergence, the rushing offense has been much better at times where it was completely nonexistent for long stretches last season. Penn State's defense has done fine despite losing stalwart middle linebacker Nyeem Wartman-White to a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.
Franklin has considered what he calls "quick fixes" for the depth issues, but decided to use a longterm strategy to replenish a proud program with top high school talent, hence his promise to "dominate the state" at introductory press conference. He's sticking to that, despite it taking longer than he'd like.
"I think in a lot of ways, in a lot of aspects, we're on schedule," Franklin said. "That first year we could have went out and signed 15 junior college players. This year could have went out and signed 15 junior college players. But I don't think myself or the administration or our fans really want to do it that way. We want to do it for the long haul."