Franklin’s passion great, but somewhat misguided

Commentary

The ending of Penn State’s crushing loss to No. 4 Ohio State on Saturday night was embarrassingly bad, but that was only the beginning of the drama for coach James Franklin.

The No. 9 Nittany Lions’ last-gasp hope in the 27-26 loss ended with a ridiculous fourth-down playcall that no coach who calls himself prepared can ever really live down. It was so alarmingly bad that it may forever be remembered as much as the awesome blocked field goal and TD return that led to the magical 2016 victory over the Buckeyes.

Penn State fans all know what happened on the play, and I’ll discuss it more later.

But what you may or may not be aware of is what happened after the game ended, when Franklin was leaving the field.

A PSU fan in the front row of the student section wearing a white No. 1 jersey near the tunnel looked at Franklin and, very calmly, said, “Fourth-and-5, you should have passed it, coach. That was a bad call.”

Franklin heard the remark and said, pretty calmly, “I appreciate your input,” then kept walking toward the tunnel.

There wasn’t much to it all, really. And that should have been the end of it.

But then Franklin did something odd. He tried to turn around and come back out toward the fan. He stared down the young man and appeared to be perturbed. Fortunately, someone grabbed Franklin and sort of pushed/guided the coach away from the situation and back toward the tunnel.

Nothing escalated any further, thankfully for all involved, especially Franklin. But a video camera captured the incident, and it was the talk of social media on Sunday.

It wasn’t the worst thing a coach has ever done, and certainly anyone who’s ever competed in sports can understand that emotions run extremely raw after a tough loss.

In that light, it’s understandable that Franklin reacted the way he did. He’s a super passionate, emotional guy.

But he was wrong to do what he did.

Franklin has just got to be above it.

He’s the leader of a great football program, is the highest-paid state employee in Pennsylvania and is a tremendous leader. But what does it say about someone’s leadership skills that he lets himself get so thrown off by a calm and rational heckling student that he tries to confront the guy, only to need to be restrained from doing so?

The bottom line is, the fan was right.

That was a bad call.

Penn State’s coaches blew it, be it offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne, who made the call, or Franklin, for allowing the ill-fated fourth-down handoff to Miles Sanders to be run with the game on the line.

Franklin said he wanted to have “the most challenging environment in the history of college football” for the game, and you know what, the fans did their part.

It was an awesome atmosphere.

It was an awesome atmosphere because the fans are every bit as passionate about Penn State football as James Franklin. It stands to reason, then, that if the coaches make such a terrible playcall, that they deserve to be called out on it by their passionate fans.

Franklin can’t have it both ways. He can’t expect the fans to be crazy about the product if he doesn’t understand they’re going to go crazy when an awful coaching mistake helps cost the Nittany Lions a huge game.

Franklin did apologize for his actions afterward, saying, “I had a heat of the moment exchange with one of our fans in our student section. I was frustrated with the end of the game and should not have reacted that way.”

Hopefully that’s the end of it all and Franklin never does this sort of thin-skinned thing again.

Now, I do want to say I have great respect for Franklin coming out and being brutally honest in the opening remarks of his postgame press conference. My biggest pet peeve about covering sports is how seldom we actually hear coaches and players say what they’re really thinking, being open and honest and raw with emotion.

I sat stunned listening to Franklin talk about how Penn State is a great program but not an elite one and his gripes about why that is. It was so refreshing to hear him, of all people, be so candid.

OK, having said that, I do want to take Franklin to task over one thing.

He chose that forum to talk about how the players need to focus on all the little things more, such as going to class and staying off their phones in meetings, as ways for PSU to become an elite program.

But Penn State lost Saturday’s game because the COACHES messed up late. Let’s not forget that.

Rahne called a terrible play with the handoff to Sanders, who had been shut down all night and was stuffed for a loss. That play was a bigger reason for Penn State losing the game than the ticky tack things Franklin was talking about with regards to class and cellphones.

There had just been three consecutive timeouts called. Penn State had 10 minutes to come up with the perfect play on fourth-and-5 from the Ohio State 39. And THAT was it?

Give me a break.

Quarterback Trace McSorley was sensational with a PSU-record 461 yards of total offense, and yet Rahne took the ball out of his hands. McSorley said he understands Rahne’s thinking on the play and said this about it:

“We knew they were going to make their linebackers jump when we moved Miles, and they weren’t going to be set in position, and it was going to give us a chance to get a hole up the middle and crease them. That’s what our thought process was. We weren’t able to pick up a twist, and a guy got in the backfield and made a play.”

That’s all well and good. But this is big-time, big-stakes college football, and everyone who makes every decision has to be accountable for those decisions.

Rahne, in his first full season as an offensive coordinator, blew it. Period. And Franklin acknowledged it, saying, “Obviously we should have called something different.”

Rahne had been very good so far this season, and PSU led the country in scoring at 55.5 points per game coming into Saturday. But the Lions scored only 26 in the loss, and basically nothing was working except for McSorley pulling magic out of his hat time and time again.

Yet Franklin wants to blame going to class and cellphones.

That’s weak.

The hard reality is that Penn State’s last four losses going back to 2016 have been by a total of eight points. The Lions have held fourth-quarter leads in all four games — twice vs. Ohio State, vs. USC in the Rose Bowl and at Michigan State last year — and haven’t been able to close the deal.

The Lions have the players to be an elite program. They’ve proven that on the field by going toe to toe against great competition.

Do they have the coaches to be an elite program? I say yes. Franklin and his staff have done enough over the past few years to prove that.

But if Franklin wants to start pointing fingers for these very, very difficult losses against premium competition, he should be worried more about what he and the staff are doing late in these games than he is about going after a heckling fan in the stands or criticizing players for relatively trivial things.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430-WVAM.

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