Would you blame James Franklin for leaving Penn State for USC if that opportunity is on the table?
Everybody keeps asking that question. Depending on who answers, Franklin is either the hot candidate or the hot-seat coach. Franklin is capable of winning at both places.
Yet Saturday’s 33-24 loss to No. 5 Ohio State showed one more time why that exit to the West Coast makes sense. It’s about the Sisyphean nature of dealing with the Buckeyes boulder in the Big Ten East.
Penn State played Ohio State tough, especially in the first half. The Nittany Lions limited freshman phenom TreVeyon Henderson to nine carries for six yards and frustrated C.J. Stroud. It was an inspired performance at Ohio Stadium.
It’s just that every time Penn State got close, the Buckeyes had an answer.
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Chris Olave caught a 38-yard TD with 3:48 remaining in the first half. Jerron Cage, a 305-pound defensive tackle, rumbled 57 yards on a scoop-and-score on the next possession. Just like that, the Nittany Lions were down 10 points.
Penn State didn’t quit. The Nittany Lions tied the score at 17 in the third quarter. Ohio State kicked a field goal then Henderson finally busted loose for a 68-yard run. Just like that, Penn State was down 10 points again.
Even then, the Nittany Lions scored again and it was a 27-24 game heading into the fourth quarter. Clifford threw an interception, and Penn State could not score in the fourth quarter despite lights-out red-zone defense that limited the Buckeyes to two field goals.
On Oct. 9, Penn State led Iowa 17-3 in the second quarter in a top-five showdown. Quarterback Sean Clifford was injured, however, and the Hawkeyes won a 23-20 thriller. Had Clifford stayed in the game, Penn State may have risen to No. 2 in the nation. The nine-OT disaster against the Illini followed, and Ohio State denied Penn State’s best shot at an upset. The Nittany Lions are 5-3 with Michigan and Michigan State still on the schedule.
It’s like the old Nationwide Insurance slogan: “Life comes at you fast.” That’s a Columbus, Ohio, based company, by the way, and yet another reminder that the Ohio State shadow is omnipresent in the Big Ten.
The Buckeyes are 22-0 in Big Ten play under third-year coach Ryan Day and trying to win a fifth straight conference championship. Franklin has been the best competition through that run. He’s an excellent recruiter, Penn State has three 11-win seasons under his watch and the talent development is there.
The Nittany Lions blew fourth-quarter leads in 2017 and 2018 in one-point losses. Their average margin of loss in this five-game losing streak to OSU is 7.
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Penn State has proven it can win a Big Ten championship with Franklin. They did that in 2016 and beat Ohio State 24-21 in the regular season. The Buckeyes, however, went to the College Football Playoff instead because the Nittany Lions had losses against Pitt and Michigan. Even when Penn State wins, they have lost this battle.
So, in reality, this hasn’t come at Penn State all that fast. It’s just the nature of the Ohio State beast. Michigan feels the brunt of that more than anyone else. Wisconsin feels it in Big Ten championship games. Penn State should know by now. Those three schools are now 1-24 against Ohio State since 2012.
That’s a 4% chance of the boulder not rolling back down the hill.
Let Jim Harbaugh and Paul Chryst keep pushing that boulder. Michigan State coach Mel Tucker? Have at it. Penn State’s next head coach will face the same ridiculous task.
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So the choice is this. Franklin could shut down speculation he is leaving, continue to push the boulder and wait for College Football Playoff expansion, where the Nittany Lions would be a semi-regular given that track record of success.
Or, Franklin could back-channel that USC job and use the same script that worked at Vanderbilt and Penn State. Franklin could build USC into a Pac-12 champion, and he would upgrade the talent with his recruiting touch. He would have to deal with Ohio State again, but at least it would be on the CFP stage.
Which school offers a better job? In the College Football Playoff era, the Nittany Lions have the better record at 65-30 compared to the Trojans at 59-33. It’s splitting hairs from there about two programs that shake out about the same.
That’s a toss-up at best. You would respect for Franklin for staying, competing and continuing to push that boulder to catch the Buckeyes.
But with the boulder at the bottom of the hill, you can’t blame him for trying another challenge.