Column: James Franklin, Penn State football continue troubling losing trend
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - It happened again.
Saturday afternoon at a rain-soaked Beaver Stadium, in front of a listless crowd expecting an easy win against one of the Big Ten’s worst opponents, the Nittany Lions lost in a historic 20-18, nine-overtime decision. Still recovering from a brutal 23-20 loss at Iowa two weeks prior, multiple prominent pieces lost to injury, that recuperation was assumed to be equal parts physical, mental, and emotional given the program’s 5-0 start to the 2021 campaign.
In what has become an undeniable trend for the Penn State football program under the direction of head coach James Franklin, though, that recovery did not come to fruition.
Acknowledging the individuality of every season and every game within it, the numbers don’t lie. Beginning in Franklin’s first season with the program, the Nittany Lions have followed their first loss of the year with another directly afterward on five occasions. Absent the 2015 season, the other two campaigns included a loss just two games after the first, falling at Michigan in 2016, and at Ohio State in 2019.
In total, in a program that has otherwise notched levels of success and consistency among some of the best in college football, particularly within the past six seasons, a remarkable occurrence has taken place. Now at 65-30 through his eight-season tenure with Penn State, Franklin has seen a whopping 33 percent of his team’s losses take place within three games of each other.
Even excluding the 2014 and 2015 seasons in which the program was still very much at the mercy of debilitating NCAA sanctions, the trend is that much more pronounced and puzzling. Narrowing the data set to 18 losses in the past six seasons, Franklin has had only three take place outside of a back-to-back or two-out-of-three set of circumstances.
In every instance since 2016, one of the two opponents was ranked and ranked highly.
- After Pitt in 2016, the Nittany Lions got their doors blown off at No. 4 Michigan, 49-10.
- Dropping a gut-wrencher at No. 6 Ohio State in 2017, the Nittany Lions followed with a 27-24 loss at No. 24 Michigan State in the bizarre monsoon game.
- First losing to No. 4 Ohio State in the fourth-and-5, 27-26 White Out game in 2018, Penn State sleepwalked through a 21-17 loss to a bad Michigan State team after a bye. (The game most reminiscent of Saturday’s loss to Illinois Saturday of the stretch.)
- Falling at unbeaten Minnesota, ranked 17th in 2019, the Nittany Lions made a game of a 28-17 loss at No. 2 Ohio State two weeks later in which Clifford missed the second half due to injury.
- After the season-opening overtime loss at Indiana last year, the Nittany Lions again went down to No. 3 Ohio State the next week.
- And this season, despite climbing as high as No. 4 in the rankings with wins at ranked Wisconsin and against ranked Auburn, the loss at No. 3 Iowa prefaced Saturday’s pratfall to an Illinois team with a first-year head coach and wins against only Nebraska and Charlotte.
One commonality? Points, or a lack thereof.
In every instance just mentioned, Penn State has been unable to exceed 25 points in its second loss. On average, the Nittany Lions’ second loss has been accompanied by just 18.5 points per outing. Even with outstanding defensive performances, in today’s college football, that’s typically not going to be enough to win.
Pointing to the need for attention to detail at practices coming off a loss, receiver Jahan Dotson said looking at the bigger picture of getting to Saturday can lead to trip-ups. And, himself a fellow four-year performer, defensive end Jesse Luketa said the team’s character wouldn’t be undone by the most recent setback.
“There are times where after adversity like this, you guys just want to give up and just call it quits, but that’s not us. That’s not our identity,” Luketa said. “Adversity is going to come. We spoke to Coach throughout the offseason and we wanted a harder offseason to have us gel together and bring us closer.
“Hey, we’re facing some adversity right now. What are we going to do? Are we going to cry about it or are we going to face the task and get back to work?”
Attempting to pinpoint a deeper subtext to the trend is probably a fool’s errand. The names and faces that make up the Nittany Lions’ roster from year to year change and, thus, so too does the personality of the team they create.
But one of the few consistent pieces of the equation, Franklin, will likely need to reconsider his approach to these situations moving forward.
For as consistent as his methodology has remained throughout his eight-year tenure with the Nittany Lions, so too has been this trend. And without a serious examination of how and why it has come to be, its continuation is almost certain to be prolonged and is not sustainable.
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