Has Penn State football program already peaked under Franklin?

It’s time to face some hard truths about the Penn State football program following a second straight gut-wrenching loss in which the team gave away the game in the final minutes.

First and foremost, I can’t help but wonder if what we’ve already seen is really as good as it’s going to get for the Nittany Lions for the foreseeable future. I’m talking about the unexpected rapid rise and magic of the past couple of years, plus the high expectations this season.

There are so many things going right at Penn State, and James Franklin is recruiting at a very high level. That would suggest a future filled with chances for Big Ten titles and College Football Playoff berths.

But Trace McSorley is gone after this year. Yes, he had a bad game in Saturday’s 21-17 loss to Michigan State, but he’s still the best quarterback in PSU history and will leave holding just about every record imaginable.

We have no idea if the starting quarterback next year, Tommy Stevens or Sean Clifford, will be anywhere near as good or as clutch as McSorley. I do know this: The only reason Penn State had a chance to beat Ohio State this year was McSorley’s magic, and he, not Saquon Barkley or anyone else, has been the most important player on PSU’s potent offense for three years now.

No matter how much talent a football team has, a special quarterback often is needed for that team to be elite. Alabama has been an exception at times with relatively average quarterbacks, but those teams were stacked with elite players all over the field.

An explosive offense has been the key to PSU’s turnaround, and when McSorley is gone, there are no guarantees the offense will ever be as productive.

A second reason for that is Joe Moorhead is gone, too. I’ve long been of the opinion that Moorhead’s arrival and what he did to modernize Penn State’s offense was the single most important element of the resurgence that began in 2016.

Moorhead has been around and seen it all. He’s called plays in more than 150 college games. Yes, he made some questionable calls, but you still always felt like you could trust his wisdom and experience.

The same simply cannot be said for Ricky Rahne, the first-year offensive coordinator.

Rahne’s fourth-down playcall that ended PSU’s hopes in the 27-26 loss to Ohio State was embarrassing. He may never live that down.

But you know what, Rahne was even worse on the whole in Saturday’s loss to Michigan State.

It’s unfathomable that an offense that led the country in scoring three weeks ago could manage only 17 points against a Michigan State defense that ranked 122nd out of 129 teams nationally in passing yards allowed.

Rahne’s game plan against the Spartans was woefully inept. Miles Sanders had a couple of exceptional runs (78 yards and an amazing 48-yarder for a TD) against the nation’s top-ranked run defense, but really nothing else worked all night.

A lot of blame falls on McSorley. He was off on several key throws. But the failure to take more shots downfield and to call for too many QB runs against that defense was inexcusable.

Tied at 14 and with the game on the line, Rahne made a horrendous playcall on third-and-goal from the 2 when he had McSorley throw a fade to Juwan Johnson. First of all, Johnson has played poorly most of the season with numerous drops, and secondly, that call hasn’t been a staple of PSU’s goal-line offense in recent years.

The pass misfired badly, and the Lions had to settle for a field goal and 17-14 lead, which obviously turned out not to be enough.

Rahne has been good in many situations for much of the season, and the Lions have scored a bunch of points. But in his position, he’s going to be judged on the decisions he makes late in big games, and in the two losses this year, he hasn’t been up to the challenge.

Rahne will be under the spotlight even more when McSorley is no longer around to save the day. He had better make huge improvements, or else that could be a rough transition.

Clearly, Penn State’s receivers have not played well, with the exception of KJ Hamler. The loss of receivers coach Josh Gattis to Alabama has turned out to be a huge one.

I’ve seen a lot of “fire Brent Pry” type of comments since Saturday’s game. That’s preposterous.

Yes, PSU’s defense faltered late against Ohio State and Michigan State. But good grief, the way the program is set up now with such heavy reliance on offense, a defense that holds the Buckeyes to 27 points and the Spartans to 21 should be plenty good enough to win.

Franklin is an excellent CEO as a college coach. But the reason so many people still question him is that he relies so much on his assistant coaches, which thereby leaves him vulnerable to heavy criticism when the assistants struggle.

It should be obvious to everyone that Franklin was outcoached by Mark Dantonio, and that sort of thing seems to happen too often to a coach who promises that his program someday will become elite.

Let’s be clear about one thing with regards to Franklin: He has done an exceptional job making Penn State nationally prominent again so quickly, and if you think he should be fired, then you have serious issues as a sports fan.

James Franklin has exceeded any and all expectations that any PSU fan possibly could have had when he was hired.

But that’s also part of the problem.

Franklin turned Penn State around so quickly that it gave the fan base a warped level of expectations. It’s ridiculously hard to go 10-2 or even 9-3 in the Big Ten East, but because PSU won the league well ahead of schedule in 2016 and went to the Fiesta Bowl last year, all of a sudden Lion fans once again feel like it’s their birthright to win 10 games a year.

But hey, I get it. As a sports fan, losses to good teams don’t really infuriate me. What does infuriate me is when I know my team is better than an opponent, has the game seemingly won and then blows it.

Those losses hurt. And linger. And make you question everything about your team.

Which is what Penn State fans everywhere are doing right now with Franklin and the Lions following back-to-back losses that never should have occurred.

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

COMMENTS