Shortly before the Rose Bowl began, a taped message from several members of the Penn State and Southern Cal teams aired on the scoreboard, welcoming fans to “The Grandaddy Of Them All.”
It ended with Southern Cal coach Clay Helton, followed by Penn State coach James Franklin. The roar from the Penn State fans when Franklin appeared was louder than any for the other Nittany Lions, and louder than the ovation for Helton despite there being more red and gold than blue and white among the 95,000 fans in attendance.
It was a moment that reflected how far Franklin and this program has come in the past few months. After starting the season 2-2, Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour had seen and heard enough chatter about Franklin’s job security that she felt compelled to issue a pubic vote of confidence.
Nine wins later, Penn State was champions of the Big Ten, Franklin was co-coach of the year in the conference, and multiple members of his staff were approached by other schools for head coaching positions. When Franklin arrived in Pasadena, Calif., at the venerable Rose Bowl Stadium, Penn State fans feted him like a conquering hero.
Getting the program back to this point didn’t start when the Nittany Lions were 2-2 in late September. Franklin and his staff have recruited better than Penn State has in the previous decade.
This past offseason Franklin had to replace three assistants on his staff — defensive coordinator Bob Shoop left for Tennessee, offensive line coach Herb Hand left for Auburn and offensive coordinator John Donovan was fired. Franklin promoted Brent Pry to replace Shoop, then tabbed a pair of Pittsburgh guys to help fix the offense.
Former Minnesota assistant Matt Limegrover helped the offensive line make dramatic improvements, while Joe Moorhead came from Fordham and oversaw one of the top offensive renaissances in the nation.
Those three hires alone might have made this a successful season for Franklin and the program, but winning the Big Ten East, the Big Ten championship and being part of perhaps the game of the college football season at the Rose Bowl should help Penn State in countless ways in the near future.
Even the disappointment of losing on the final play to Southern Cal will eventually fade. Penn State is likely to benefit more from playing in that incredible game than, for example, beating Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl will help Wisconsin when it comes to recruiting, fundraising and other vital components of program building.
Here’s a statistical look at the Nittany Lions’ season:
|BY THE NUMBERS||2016||Big Ten rank||NCAA rank||2015||Big Ten rank||NCAA rank|
|Total yards allowed/game||367.9||8th||37th||324.5||5th||14th|
|S&P+ team rating||19.5||3rd||9th||10.4||4th||30|
|S&P+ offense rating||37.9||1st||18th||29.8||8th||59th|
|S&P+ defense rating||19.8||4th||14th||19.4||6th||14th|
Picking Trace McSorley to be the starting quarterback, even though he was going to be one of the shortest in a Power 5 conference, proved to be the right decision. One reason some Penn State fans were disgruntled about the first two seasons of Franklin’s tenure was some of the in-game decisions and adjustments made.
Well, Penn State became one of the best teams in the nation during the second halves of games in 2016. The offense ranked first in the country in the third quarter and fourth in the fourth quarter, according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ advanced statistics rating. The defense ranked No. 20 in the third quarter and No. 9 in the fourth.
The roster was deeper, in part because this was the first season Penn State was allowed to have 85 scholarship players since NCAA sanctions were levied. This coaching staff made it a priority to play more players and create more depth. That came in handy when injuries ravaged the linebacker corps and later impacted the offensive line.
It will also help next season, when Penn State needs to replace at least four starters on defense and two on offense. If Garrett Sickels and Chris Godwin are the only players who leave early for the NFL, then Penn State could return 16 starters in 2017.
Maybe the greatest strength for this coaching staff this season was whatever it did to keep the Penn State players focused. When the team was 2-2, there was a lot of external noise about Franklin’s job and the general direction of the program.
After Penn State beat Ohio State, the expectations immediately changed. Despite being a young team, the Nittany Lions continued to take care of business and won five straight games to close the regular season. That proved to be a huge deal — even Michigan, with 43 seniors, had an off night at Iowa — and it led Penn State to Indianapolis and then Pasadena.
There’s not a lot to quibble with from this season. The defensive gameplan against Pittsburgh didn’t work, but some adjustments helped in the second half. Maybe Penn State should have played for overtime in the final minute against Southern Cal, but as Franklin noted after the game, that wouldn’t have really lined up with his team’s aggressive, big-play mentality that had gotten them to that point.
There haven’t been any raises or extensions announced by Barbour to this point, but Franklin and his staff has earned them. It’s been an incredible year for them and the program.
COACHING STAFF GRADE: A