Thirteen months ago, Penn State coach James Franklin promised to make his players uncomfortable being comfortable on their road from “great to elite.”
Time for a progress report.
“We’re 1-0,” Franklin said Saturday night, “and I’m very uncomfortable. All the time.”
Penn State has climbed into the College Football Playoff debate with an 8-0 record that few outside State College anticipated. The Lions have won games in a variety of ways, from blowouts to nail-biters, at night and in the rain, with big-play offense and goal-line defense.
The team last week cleared a significant three-game hurdle, defeating Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State in the same season for the first time since 1995. After a week off, Penn State faces another difficult, and unexpected, three-game series.
Tough road ahead: Starting with Minnesota, Penn State’s next three opponents currently have a combined record of 22-2. Two (Minnesota and Ohio State) are 8-0. Indiana, the sandwich home game, is a surprising 6-2.
Sweep that stretch and Penn State will be a win over Rutgers from being 12-0 for the first time since 1994. That’s among the destinations Franklin had in mind in September 2018, when he delivered his “Great to Elite Address” following a 27-26 loss to Ohio State.
“We’re a great program," Franklin said after the game. “We lost to an elite program. We’re that close. We have gotten comfortable being great. We will no longer be comfortable being great.”
Franklin promised to make his program and everyone in it uncomfortable getting to elite, a message that initially met resistance. The Lions lost the following week to Michigan State, played several lethargic games afterward and lost to Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl.
Roster transition: A roster-transition followed, with more than 20 players leaving the program through NFL departures and transfers in the offseason. Such change can disrupt teams or breathe new life into them.
At Penn State, the latter seems to have occurred.
“We’re in a good place,” Franklin said after the team’s 28-7 win over Michigan State. “We’ve got a healthy locker room that cares about and loves each other. I’ve got a really good group of coaches, because I was emotional after the game, that has my back as well.”
More cohesiveness: Since spring, players consistently have described a locker room more cohesive and single-minded around Franklin’s message. Tight end Pat Freiermuth, who caught three touchdown passes against Michigan State, said that players have been more detail-oriented.
Before the season, defensive tackle Antonio Shelton said that Franklin’s constant drumbeat about “championship habits” became more real to them. As Shelton noted, the Lions had “arguably the greatest college football player in a long time [in Saquon Barkley], and none of us has a national championship.”
So the players took it upon themselves to act.
“Sometimes, when your coach gets on you, you might take it in a certain way. But when your friends or teammates get on you, you know it’s different,” Shelton said. “We really have to buy into this. We really have to live championship habits. None of us wants to feel that again. Nobody likes traveling to Florida [for a bowl game] and losing. We’re tired of letting things slip through our fingers, so we have to change our behavior.”
Accepting being uncomfortable: So they accepted being uncomfortable. Freiermuth said that strength coach Dwight Galt often added extra hill runs during summer workouts. When the team labored on third down early this season, Franklin instituted live drills pitting the first and second teams against each other with pushups on the line. At practice, something usually is on the line.
“They put us in positions in camp and offseason workouts and in practice to make us get out of our comfort zone and do things we’re not accustomed to,” Freiermuth said. "It's about taking the next step as a program."
That comes off the field as well. Last spring, Penn State hired an architect to complete a planned $69 million renovation of its Lasch Football Building. The program directly tied the renovations to recruiting success.
Recruiting on roll: Penn State’s last four recruiting classes ranked among the top 20 nationally, and the 2020 group is 12th, according to Rivals.com. Assistant coach Terry Smith even used the word “resilience” to describe the team’s recruiting.
“I think we just overcome everything and keep recruiting at a high level and just keep getting good talent,” said Smith, who is Penn State’s defensive recruiting coordinator. “Not just good talented players but good people who fit our culture. That chemistry in our locker room is what’s given us the success we’re having today.”
After the win over Michigan State, Franklin said that he’s comfortable for four hours a week: that period from victory until he begins preparing for the next game. The coach isn’t alone.
“He makes us uncomfortable every day,” defensive end Jayson Oweh said. “… In terms of great/elite, I feel like we are who we are. We’re one of the best defenses in the country, our offense is really getting up there taking care of their business and we have a good opportunity to fight for the College Football Playoff.”