Penn State has reached the midway point of its season, and has a bye week before No. 2 Ohio State comes to Beaver Stadium for a Saturday night showdown Oct. 22. It’s a good time to take stock of what has transpired for the Nittany Lions and what might lie ahead.
All James Franklin had to do this season was win eight or nine games — including at least one against Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State and maybe beat Pitt — to prove to a disgruntled fan base that he is the right coach for Penn State moving forward.
Those expectations were quite lofty, considering the roster limitations just four years removed from one of the worst scandals in NCAA history and two years of scholarship restrictions. Trying to decipher if an issue is a potential misstep by the coaching staff or a simple roster disadvantage has not been easy during Franklin’s tenure.
Franklin had to replace both of his coordinators after last season because he fired one and the other left for Tennessee. The new offensive coordinator, Joe Moorhead, earned plenty of rave reviews before the season began, and the first half has been a mostly successful one. Take away the rout at Michigan, which has the No. 1 defense in the nation, and the Nittany Lions have made significant improvements on offense despite having to replace three-year starter Christian Hackenberg at quarterback.
The biggest reason for hope on offense is the line has improved from last season to this one and from Week 1 until now, but losing senior right tackle Andrew Nelson for the rest of the year could be an issue.
Speaking of injuries, new defensive coordinator Brent Pry’s crew has been decimated by them. Five linebackers plus two starters and two top reserves in the secondary have missed time with injuries. At one point the three starting linebackers for that week had three career starts between them.
There’s no way it hasn’t limited what Pry could do with his scheme, but the Nittany Lions are ranked in the top 15 in the nation on defense in Bill Connelly’s S&P+ advanced statistics formula.
The coaching staff deserves credit for making great in-game adjustments against Pitt and Minnesota, and criticism for several slow starts. They deserve plaudits for the in-season improvements of several players, but it’s also fair to wonder what exactly happened on the recruiting trail that left the team so short at linebacker (and tight end — thanks to one preseason injury, the options available should Mike Gesicki get hurt are bleak).
Penn State’s special teams are better than any season in the past four and significantly better 2012-14. Tyler Davis and Joey Julius were great finds, Blake Gillikin was a nice recruiting victory and the coverage units have been improved.
There’s been less for fans to complain about with the offensive play-calling. The Beaver Stadium crowd didn’t like the decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line during the Minnesota game, but otherwise there has been a decent mix of being aggressive when needed in those types of situations.
Had there not been a big second-half comeback against Pitt, maybe there would be more reason for angst. That game ended up being what all great rivalry showdowns often are — an unpredictable contest with wild swings in each direction that ultimately came down to one or two plays.
Maybe more of Franklin’s critics would be convinced if Penn State switched the results against Pitt and Minnesota, but 4-2 (2-1 Big Ten) is where the majority of preseason prognosticators would have had the Nittany Lions at this point.
Maybe there are still plenty of people who aren’t convinced Franklin is the leader who will help Penn State compete with Ohio State and Michigan in the coming seasons, but given the circumstances he and his staff have had a pretty strong 2016 to this point.
COACHING GRADE: B
Check out the grades for other aspects of Penn State’s 2016 season: