Penn State coach James Franklin lingered on the field Saturday, watching some of his seniors take a lap around Beaver Stadium. This is among his favorite moments, that bittersweet time when boys grow up and leave.
In his sixth home finale at Penn State, Franklin waited for punter Blake Gillikin, who was the last player to leave. Gillikin, who is from Georgia, didn’t even know where Penn State was 5 years ago, Franklin joked. On Saturday, after the Lions beat Rutgers 27-6, Gillikin walked off the field with Franklin’s daughters, Shola and Addie.
Franklin would recline in this bubble if he could. But after the game, college football’s reality greeted him again. For the third consecutive year, Franklin was asked about leaving Penn State.
The question has been asked in the past about Texas A&M and Miami and USC and USC again and, this time, Florida State. Like any coach, Franklin won’t make promises. They just can’t do that outside the bubble.
But Franklin hinted that some resolution could be forthcoming (perhaps an announced contract extension?) that will rest the idea for another day.
“I love Penn State, I love our players, I love what we’re doing here, I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” Franklin said. "And hopefully, all this conversation will be over shortly."
The two most important events Saturday happened after Penn State’s victory, whose result was entirely forgettable. The Lions were as complacent about Rutgers as the fan base, which paid for 98,895 tickets but didn’t use them.
Freiermuth staying: Afterward, though, Franklin put the coach-search rumors to rest as forcefully as he could without issuing a promise. And then tight end Pat Freiermuth announced that he would be returning for his junior year.
It’s rare that sophomores make such announcements, but Freiermuth is a rare sophomore. Three years removed from high school, the tight end is eligible for the 2020 NFL draft.
At 6-5, 256 pounds, he’s NFL-ready in size, maturity (he’s 21) and skillset. Freiermuth is every bit the “Baby Gronk” of his nickname, a reference to former New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Interestingly, Freiermuth referenced Franklin in the statement he posted on Twitter. It suggested that Freiermuth isn’t concerned about significant offseason staff changes.
“The brotherhood and family atmosphere in this program is something that I am not ready to leave,” Freiermuth wrote. “The culture Coach Franklin and the staff have created here is something very special and I love being part of it.”
Turnover looming for Lions: Penn State is going to lose players to the NFL and transfer portal, and possibly a coach or two to other jobs. Turnover is normal, even healthy, for high-end football programs.
But keeping Franklin at the top and Freiermuth in the offense are vital to the team’s short- and long-term health. Freiermuth is a touchdown-producer who will become the most prolific scoring tight end in Penn State history.
And Franklin’s worth is obvious. Penn State produced its third 10-win regular season in four years, which hasn’t been done since the 1970s. He has turned Penn State into a place that is disappointed with 10-win seasons.
To compare expectations, Penn State and Michigan have lost to Ohio State the past three years. Penn State lost its three games by a combined total of 13 points; Michigan lost by 63.
“When you talk about closing the gap on people, I think we’re doing that,” Franklin said. "It may not be as fast as people would like, or I would like or our players and coaches would like, but we are doing it."
Hangover vs. Rutgers: Saturday’s game against Rutgers looked like a hangover playing football. Penn State began the game without three starters, including quarterback Sean Clifford and star defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. Another, cornerback John Reid, was injured during the game.
The Lions couldn’t throw early, lagged in defending against Rutgers’ upstart offense and was in a one-possession game in the third quarter. They eventually won by 21 points, which would have been more, but the coaching staff inserted a bunch of young players (including true freshman quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson) on the final series.
Receiver Jahan Dotson, who caught a 49-yard touchdown pass, said Penn State took the Scarlet Knights lightly, which was clear and understandable. The Lions went for their knockout last week against Ohio State and didn’t land it. It’s difficult to reclaim that spark against a team that’s 0-8 in the Big Ten.
“Every single one of you guys could probably look up 25 games this year that people were supposed to do something and lost,” Franklin said. "You could pick up another 25 games of people that had a tough game against an opponent, tougher than it was supposed to be. That’s not just college football, that’s pro football, that’s high school football. That’s at every single level.
“… I get it. And I know we’re waking up tomorrow happy.”
A good Saturday: Franklin said he’s going to the Giants-Packers game Sunday to visit several former players, including Saquon Barkley. From there, he’ll head out on a recruiting travel binge that will cover thousands of miles until the early signing period begins Dec. 18.
Saturday’s win over Rutgers wasn’t Penn State’s best day of the year. In the end, though, it turned out just fine.