Frustration shifts blame to Franklin

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UNIVERSITY PARK — The road to the Big Ten championship and the College Football Playoff still runs through Columbus.

Penn State found that out painfully Saturday night.

And nobody felt the pain more than James Franklin, who was hoarse and animated afterward and challenged his program — starting with himself — to rise up to Ohio State’s level.

“This is on me,” he said. “James Franklin.”

For the second straight year, the Nittany Lions failed to deliver a knockout punch to Ohio State as the Buckeyes emerged with another one-point victory.

Last year it was 39-38 at the Horseshoe. This year, it was 27-26 before a Beaver Stadium record crowd of 110,889.

There is no comparing the level of disappointment.

“This one hurts, obviously,” Franklin said loudly. “We weren’t able to finish the game like we should have.”

Franklin took the blame, but he also served notice that he’s going to be a pain to be around for the foreseeable future.

He said the Lions have improved to a level where “we’re a great program,” but it’s not good enough.

There are still too many little things — he cited occasional lack of player attentiveness, preoccupation with cell phones, “two or three players” missing classes — that can add up.

“We don’t want to have to babysit guys,” he said.

He believes the best programs – not the great ones but the elite ones – show less tolerance than he has.

“We’re not an elite football team yet,” he said.

And he pledged the Lions would become one.

“We will no longer be comfortable being great,” he said. “We will find a way to be elite. We’ve been knocking on the door long enough. We are going to find a way to take the next step. And I’ve found the best way to get better is make people uncomfortable — including me.”

He won’t have to look far to find a model of an elite program. Ohio State has now come back from two-score deficits in the second half twice in two years against the Lions, who led 26-14 with eight minutes remaining.

Then all of a sudden a defense that played tremendously for the game’s first 52 minutes unraveled. It stopped tackling in the secondary, allowed Ohio State receivers way too much space, and it wore down up front physically.

“We didn’t make plays, and we didn’t tackle well,” Franklin said.

The offense contributed as well. A costly fumble by Miles Sanders in the first half, with the Lions leading 13-0, got Ohio State back in the game, and Penn State hurt itself by dropping or not coming up with a half-dozen catchable passes.

Those offset what could have been — and what may still be — Trace McSorley’s charge to the Heisman Trophy.

McSorley had a game for the ages in which he accounted for a staggering 461 yards of total offense. He passed for 286 yards and rushed for 175, at times bowling over Ohio State defenders in the red zone and literally willing the Lions toward victory.

While Franklin is assessing what went wrong — and why the Lions are so adept at blowing leads, a common pattern across their losses dating back to the Rose Bowl — he certainly will have to include the sideline confusion that resulted in a horrendous final play call Saturday night.

On fourth-and-5 from midfield — after both teams used a timeout — the Lions simply handed the ball off like it was their first, not their last, play from scrimmage.

Wiping out the Lions’ final breath in that manner speaks to the lack of elite coaching that is obviously necessary to boast of an elite program.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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