JAMES FRANKLIN: Penn State's 2020 football season is 'not the totality of who we are'

PARTH UPADHYAYA
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State head coach James Franklin watches from the sideline during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Despite the fact that Penn State head coach James Franklin has led the Nittany Lions to 11-win seasons and New Year's Six bowls three of the past four years, he knows how quickly the outside perception of him and his program can change with one bad season.

"You can win for four seasons at a level as high as anybody in the country, and then during a season that has been challenging on our world and a year that's been challenging on our world, it can change quickly," Franklin told reporters on a Zoom conference call Tuesday afternoon. "And for me to sit here and say that's not hard, that's hard."

The seventh-year head coach said that as much as he enjoys winning, the pain of losses often outweighs the joy of wins. Which is why he didn't get "too high" when Penn State beat Michigan on Saturday to capture its first win of the season, and he didn't get "too low" after the Nittany Lions opened their season with a program-worst 0-5 start.

And while Franklin certainly understands that fans are upset with the way the season has gone so far for Penn State, he knows that this year isn't the only one that defines his program.

"We have to own this season — we have to own it," Franklin said. "But this is not the totality of who we are. The (2019) Cotton Bowl champs, we're that, too. The (2017) Fiesta Bowl champs, we're that, too. The (2016) Big Ten champions ... For me, I just try to keep the big picture in mind as much as I possibly can."

Looking ahead: After snapping a five-game losing skid last weekend with the program's first win over Michigan in Ann Arbor since 2009, Penn State will look to carry that momentum into the final three weeks of the regular season.

Now, the Nittany Lions must travel to Piscataway, New Jersey, on Saturday to take on Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights are 2-4 this season. Since opening the season with a road win over Michigan State, Rutgers went on to lose four consecutive games before beating Purdue on the road last weekend.

Even though the Scarlet Knights have struggled offensively at times this season — they rank No. 88 in the country in total yards of offense per game — they play fast, which is something Franklin mentioned could be a challenge for his team in Saturday's matchup. Rutgers ranks No. 21 in the nation in total plays per game with 75.5 per contest.

"They're using two quarterbacks, somewhat similar to how we are, as well," Franklin said. "And we're gonna have to be ready to defend them. ... The tempo will be a factor, as well."

As expected, finally grabbing win No. 1 of 2020 has injected new life into the Nittany Lions. Now, the question is whether or not Franklin's group can put five losses in the rearview mirror and build on their first win of the season the rest of the way.

"It's gonna be a challenge going on the road in the Big Ten, finding a way to get another win and be 1-0 this week," Franklin said. "But obviously, after Saturday, our Sunday practice was really good. Our meetings on Monday were good. And we're gonna need to have a great practice, as well, today."

Who's available and who's not? Player absences have also contributed to Penn State's disastrous season.

The Nittany Lions were already without key players in junior linebacker Micah Parsons (opted out in August), redshirt junior running back Journey Brown (medically retired last month due to a heart condition), sophomore running back Noah Cain (suffered a season-ending foot injury against Indiana) and junior tight end Pat Freiermuth (underwent season-ending surgery last month).

But Penn State's depth took even more of a hit before Saturday's contest versus Michigan. Against the Wolverines, the Nittany Lions only had three cornerbacks available. The team was also missing sophomore running back Devyn Ford, who left Penn State's Week 5 matchup against Iowa with an apparent injury and didn't make the trip to Michigan because of a death in his family.

Only redshirt freshman Joey Porter Jr., redshirt freshman Daequan Hardy and sophomore Marquis Wilson were available at cornerback last week. Franklin said he anticipates the team having at least four — if not five — cornerbacks available this Saturday versus Rutgers.

As for Ford's status, Franklin mentioned the 5-foot-11, 198-pound running back had returned for Sunday's practice and is "available." It's unclear what the Nittany Lions' running back rotation will look like after freshman running back Keyvone Lee's career performance of 134 yards on 22 carries against Michigan, but the presence of Ford — who has rushed for 209 yards through five games — is still vital to add depth and experience to an already-depleted unit.

And to add to the list of Penn State players who have had their 2020 seasons cut short, Franklin said that redshirt sophomore linebacker Charlie Katshir suffered a season-ending injury.

Katshir — who only played in three games this season — wasn't a major piece to the Nittany Lions' linebacker rotation, but he provided additional depth to yet another thin group.