Much has been made of Penn State coach James Franklin’s 0-7 record against Big Ten East division heavyweights Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, the latest of those last Saturday’s 49-10 thumping against the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
An underreported story? He’s 6-4 against everyone else in conference play, a record that includes a pair of losses to Northwestern. Throw in nonconference losses against Pittsburgh and Temple over the last two seasons, and Franklin is merely a .500 coach against peer — or worse — institutions.
That, far more than the struggles against clearly superior programs, is the primary reason for the angst that has swirled around the Nittany Lions since late last season, when they dropped their last four games to finish 7-6.
Imagine, for example, if Penn State in 2014 tacks on wins against mediocre-to-bad Northwestern, Maryland and Illinois teams, the latter two in games that were decided by a combined 3 points. Suddenly, we’re talking 10 wins that year, and Franklin is hailed as a miracle worker for getting to double digits with a roster that had fewer than 50 scholarship players at year’s end.
Or what about adding wins against Temple and Northwestern last season to get to nine victories? That probably wouldn’t drive quite the rave reviews, but the murmurs about his job security in the offseason certainly would have been fewer.
Now is the time to turn those struggles around.
Enter Minnesota and Maryland, Penn State’s next two opponents, both at home.
The undefeated Gophers will roll into Happy Valley on Saturday with one of the most dangerous offenses in the conference. Quarterback Mitch Leidner an experienced threat to make plays with both his arm and his legs, and the running back stable of Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks and Kobe McCrary has the depth of talent to keep the pressure on Penn State’s depleted linebacking corps all afternoon.
The Terrapins, also 3-0, have put up big numbers against some pretty weak competition so far. But they outlasted the Nits, 20-19, in their last trip to Beaver Stadium in ’14 and fought to the bitter end of a shootout between the two teams last season in Baltimore, falling by the slimmest of margins, 31-30.
Beating both will not be easy, but doing so would leave the Nits at 4-2 entering the bye and with two weeks to prepare for a home date with No. 2 Ohio State in what would become a house-money game.
At that point, Franklin could begin making an affirmative case for himself regardless of what happens against the Buckeyes (though winning that one would obviously be a huge bonus.) He can look down the schedule from there at Purdue, Iowa, Indiana and Rutgers — none of whom have really distinguished themselves this season — with some wind in his sails and a reasonable path to eight regular-season wins.
Drop one or both against the Gophers and Terrapins, though, and Penn State puts itself in the position of having to beat those aforementioned teams on the schedule after Ohio State merely to keep its hopes for bowl eligibility afloat.
That’s not progress for a program that has not had an eight-win season since 2012.
And so while these next two games may not be as prominent as those against Ohio State and Michigan State will be — both are airing on the Big Ten Network — these are the ones Franklin has to have to build some equity.
Sure, beating the two big dawgs left on the schedule could accomplish the same thing. But every win against a peer amplifies the ripple effect of downing Urban Meyer or Mark Dantonio. It turns those big games into opportunities to build some serious momentum rather than simply fend of the wolves.
Simply put, this is a walk-before-you-run scenario. Yes, Penn State has to eventually beat the division’s best teams to be taken seriously as a threat. No, the pipeline of highly touted recruiting classes of late won’t continue to flow otherwise.
As last season’s Iowa team learned in avoiding any of the three Beasts of the East until the Big Ten championship game, though, life can be pretty good on that second rung if you take care of your business against the rest of the conference.
Penn State needs to get to that level first, and beating Minnesota and Maryland is a good place to get started.
The Gophers, though their offense is strong, are a lot like the Nittany Lions in that their defense is vulnerable. If defensive coordinator Brent Pry can get his boys ready, even a couple of key stops will give Penn State a good chance at taking this one, assuming the offense gets back in the groove it showed in nonconference. The Terrapins, meanwhile, showed some offensive vulnerabilities in escaping Central Florida in double overtime last week.
They are beatable, but so were several of the teams Penn State has lost in conference play in recent seasons.
What could make this season different is finally closing the deal.