Under Bill O’Brien, Penn State football was defined by excitement, with deep throws, gutsy fourth-down conversion attempts and shoddy defense leading to a lot — four in 16 Big Ten games! — of overtime thrillers.
The Nittany Lions under James Franklin have been more dull these past two years, highlighted by short throws off rollouts and screens, conservative fourth-down strategy, solid defense and predictable outcomes.
One brand of football was a lot of fun to watch en route to producing a 15-9 record over two seasons. The other has been excruciating at times, especially offensively, on the way to 14-12.
This is the main reason Franklin has significantly more critics out for blood as his third season in Happy Valley looms.
Sure, there are a lot of people who don’t look beyond the win-loss record and they will tell you Franklin’s survival as coach depends on improvement. But with two new coordinators, a competition to replace Christian Hackenberg at quarterback and question marks along both lines, more mediocrity seems like the most likely outcome for 2016.
Success during O’Brien’s tenure won’t, in and of itself, doom Franklin. Once you weed out the folks who mistakenly see Joe Paterno’s successor as a traitor or quitter for taking the head coaching job with the NFL’s Houston Texans two years ago, he remains one of the most popular Penn State figures alive despite a good-not-great .625 winning percentage.
Of course, holding the program together in the face of crippling NCAA sanctions is a big part of this. But that’s part of Franklin’s legacy, too, as he’s produced winning records even as Penn State’s number of scholarship players bottomed out the last two years.
So it’s really not an average team Penn Staters find intolerable. It’s an unwatchable one.
It’s a group that loses a game on safe play call — the punt late in the loss at Illinois in 2014 — instead of the high risk/high reward throw that ends with an interception. It’s the team that makes you tweet angry emojis when it struggles to cross midfield instead of the shrug when it drops a spellbinding track meet.
This is, in part, a sentiment left over from the Paterno administration, which often frustrated fans in his later years by keeping the game plan tight in big spots.
Franklin’s mission this season could more accurately be defined as Make Penn State Fun Again. Look emphatic in the games the Lions are expected to win. Take more chances in those they’re expected to lose, even if that means more mistakes from units with young players on both sides of the ball.
If, at the end of the year, that translates to another seven- or eight-win season, it’s reasonable to expect Franklin will have bought plenty of good will to continue his project of bringing the program back to relevance.
One card Franklin will be playing toward that goal is the hiring of Joe Moorhead. The new offensive coordinator from Fordham brings a fast-paced playbook that, while untested at this level, promises to be a stark departure from the plodding, pop-gun game plan of John Donovan.
Even if it doesn’t work particularly well to start, it’s the type of offense that’s quick enough to keep people engaged, and coherent enough in its philosophy — wear the other team out — for fans to easily benchmark its progress from week to week.
Franklin also has the advantage of a schedule loaded with scalps Penn State fans would love to collect. The meeting with old rival Pitt is 16 years in the making. The Temple tilt offers a shot at revenge for the Lions’ first loss to the Owls since before Pearl Harbor last year. Highly ranked Big Ten East division foes Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State all represent chances for signature wins. Iowa comes calling for a game that almost always seems to end up being one of the most important on a given slate. And, at the very least, Maryland and Rutgers are regional gadflies that folks enjoy seeing swatted.
Win a few of those games, keep the others exciting and you’re talking about a year that feels a lot like 2002 or 2013, when Penn State’s middling records betrayed dramatic action on the field that many people remember fondly. Think Heisman Trophy finalist Larry Johnson’s run to 2,000 yards and the four-overtime triumph against a ranked Wolverines squad, respectively.
Make no mistake, Franklin won’t get that kind of pass forever. Sooner than later, he’s going to have to win more games to keep people satisfied, and that’s a perfectly legitimate expectation for a coach with a fat paycheck and vast resources at his disposal.
But with the effects of the sanctions now at the “light hangover” stage — more a problem of youthfulness than a lack of depth — plenty of fans remain sympathetic enough to be charmed by a group that underachieves against Penn State’s historical expectations but shows some flashes of brilliance in doing so.
And between Moorhead, the schedule and playmakers such as receiver Chris Godwin and running back Saquon Barkley, Franklin has the tools to get there.
Let’s see what he can do.
Adam Bittner …