Is Penn State’s James Franklin on the hot seat?

The simple answer is no. At least not yet.

After a disappointing end to the 2018 season, the Penn State Nittany Lion football team is hoping to make many improvements in the 2019 season. Losing all-time wins leader Trace McSorley at quarterback and former five-star running back Miles Sanders won’t be easy to recover from moving forward. The 2018 wide receiver play was so poor that the program fired David Corley after only one year and wide receiver Juwan Johnson decided to transfer to Oregon after a disappointing season. The defense was decent behind star freshman linebacker Micah Parsons, but had a poor showing at the Citrus Bowl when it really counted against Benny Snell and Kentucky. So the question is… is head coach James Franklin to blame for the discouraging 2018 campaign?

Let’s look at Penn State’s losses this season. Against Ohio State, Franklin and newly hired offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne made perhaps the worst play call of all time on 4th and 5 with Penn State attempting to retake the lead near the end of the game:

This came after the Nittany Lions led the Buckeyes for most of the second half (up until the 2:03 mark in the fourth quarter). The game would end Ohio State 27, Penn State 26, in a season-defining loss for the Nittany Lions.

Against Michigan State, there was no pass completion longer than 25 yards. Outside of two long touchdown runs from Miles Sanders, Penn State’s average yards per play was only 4.4 yards. The defense looked rather pathetic on the final drive, and the Nittany Lions went on to lose 21-17, despite leading the Spartans the entire game outside of the last 25 seconds:

Against Michigan… well, I’d rather not talk about that 42-7 massacre. I felt like I was dying a slow death the entire game.

So we have two blown leads in games the Nittany Lions probably should have won and an absolute blowout that was basically over from the start. Does a three-loss regular season justify firing a head coach? Definitely not, at least not by itself. However, the coaching decisions in these three games (like Franklin switching between barely healthy Tommy Stevens and visibly injured Trace McSorley multiple times during the course of the Michigan game, which completely killed any chance of offensive momentum) were questionable to say the least.

Franklin is not exactly known for his strong in-game decision making. It’s well documented that he is very iffy on clock management in the past.

Franklin didn’t use a timeout — he had all three — after Northwestern converted a third-and-5 to reach the Penn State 24 with 1:06 remaining in the game. The Wildcats drained the clock and ran a play, and Franklin used his first timeout with 22 seconds left, then the next two on the two ensuing plays, but it was too late. Mike Mitchell hit a 36-yard field goal with nine ticks left to give Northwestern a 23-21 lead and the win after Penn State fumbled trying to conjure up a miracle when it got the ball back.

Penn State vs. Northwestern 2015

When Franklin made his very big, very bad call for a zone read on fourth-and-5, it wasn’t like he didn’t have time to think about it. Knowing that the game (and maybe the season) was on the line, Franklin took back-to-back timeouts before making the fateful call.

Penn State vs. Ohio State 2018

Penn State has a 4th & 17 at midfield with a minute to go. Michigan has no timeouts. Clock is running.

Franklin calls timeout … and sends out his punt unit …

Penn State vs. Michigan 2018
Penn State vs. Kentucky 2019

Franklin also brought in David Corley as the new running backs coach before the 2018 season. Corley was the wide receivers coach at Army, who, as we all know, literally have a non-existent passing attack. When the Nittany Lions brought in Ja’Juan Seider two weeks later, Franklin moved Corley to wide receivers. Because that totally worked:

Penn State has seen its fair share of dropped passes so far this season, and the total, 17, leads all Power-5 schools. The data comes from Pro Football Focus, which also reveals that quarterback Trace McSorley has seen a Power-5 high 12.4 percent of his throws dropped so far this season.

Penn Live

Now, it should be noted that I’m very grateful for James Franklin as a Penn State fan. His 2016 Big Ten championship-winning season reinvigorated the entire program after the Sandusky scandal just five years earlier.

It’s also well known that Franklin is an excellent recruiter. He just completed the #2 overall recruiting class in the Big Ten for 2019, and had the #6 overall class in the country last year. Franklin can sell Penn State to the high-level recruits, it’s well-known that he absolutely loves his players, and he knows how to prepare kids for the NFL, especially when it comes to preparation in the weight room (cc: Saquon Barkley’s quads).

However, with all that being said, when will this recruiting success translate to a playoff appearance? Late blown leads, questionable play calling, and poor clock management have really stunted the program’s recent success, and these things can usually be traced back to the head coach, one way or another. It’d be understandably frustrating for fans if a traditional football powerhouse like Penn State is caught in the 8-4 to 10-2 range year after year, and I’m slightly afraid that’s exactly where the Nittany Lions are heading.

Penn State is currently the favorite to land the #1 wide receiver recruit in the country, Julian Fleming. Fleming goes to Southern Columbia High School, which is only about an hour and a half away from Happy Valley. His girlfriend is currently a Penn State student, and he’s been on campus many times already.

Franklin should have this one wrapped up. A kid who has ties to the school and lives so close should already want to play football for a nationally relevant program, and all Franklin has to do is get that commitment. However, with Ohio State being another school vying for Fleming’s attention, it would be a bad look for Franklin to lose this kid to a team in his own division. And because of that, I believe Fleming committing to be a Buckeye would be the first step to Jimmy-Boy landing right in the hot seat. It would mean that his recruiting ability isn’t necessarily what we all thought it was. Without his impressive recruiting acumen, his game management would look a lot worse. And yes, I do get that I probably sound like an extremely spoiled Penn State fan because I’m unhappy with winning seasons.

So is James Franklin on the hot seat? No, absolutely not. He’s made Penn State relevant in the college football conversation again. But I definitely think it’s a slippery slope once it gets close to that point. Hopefully it doesn’t get there, though, and the Nittany Lions have another magical season in the works.

Until then, let’s all just agree on one thing… Rutgers doesn’t belong in the Big Ten.

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