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Speculation distracting Franklin

PSU football commentary

The main storyline of the 2021 Penn State football season, unfortunately, has devolved into one thing — whether this is James Franklin’s final year in Happy Valley.

Franklin said the ongoing speculation linking him to other jobs (USC, LSU) has not been discussed with the staff or the players, but he’s nobody’s fool: In fact, Franklin is probably the savviest coach in the country when it comes to social media, who’s on it, what’s being tweeted, etc.

Clearly, the entire program is distracted, the players for how they’ve performed dating back to Sean Clifford’s injury at Iowa and most definitely Franklin.

He never comes to a press conference without a specific message, even if it means pulling out notes to address something that hadn’t been asked.

That’s why it was surprising Tuesday when three times he referenced Illinois as this week’s opponent rather than Ohio State, though he also mentioned Ryan Day and the Buckeyes.

“My focus is completely on Illinois and this team and this program,” Franklin said when asked if he’s committed to being the Nittany Lions’ coach next season. “I think I’ve shown over my eight years my commitment to this university and this community …. We’re trying to be focused on Illinois and talking about Illinois as much as we can.”

He also said he’s excited to take the team “to the Big House.”

Um, that’s in Ann Arbor.

Maybe Illinois is still stuck in Franklin’s craw. It should be — and probably will be for a long time if not the rest of his coaching career.

No doubt he’s been off his game this year, and the fact that you can’t turn on a national radio show without hearing his name when the USC job comes up has to be part of it.

Last week, in the wake of the meltdown at Iowa and prior to the Illinois game (the real Illinois game), Franklin was asked about backup quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson’s line of scrimmage cadence and whether it’s improved during the open date.

He said yes but quickly added that the situation was unique to his Penn State tenure, saying, “Our operation has been pretty consistent for my eight years and not had an issue, back to my time as an offensive coordinator at West Virginia.”

When I heard this, I was struck because I didn’t know Franklin coached at West Virginia so I checked the media guide. He didn’t.

Maybe he had West Virginia confused with Maryland, where he was the offensive coordinator. WVU does play Maryland.

The point is there have been some odd misstatements from a coach who’s typically very precise in his message.

Bottom line: It’s a tough spot. Presuming he’s interested, he doesn’t want to lie but can’t tell the truth in part because he might not even get offered, especially if the Lions further fall apart.

Mike Tomlin immediately squelched USC speculation because he saw it as an insult.

That may not be true with Franklin, who has done a very good but not elite job at Penn State, won a Big Ten title, and the players have represented the university well.

I think most Penn State fans would like to see him stay but are definitely tired of his name floated with other jobs (he changed agents last summer, another tactic to strengthen his position, either at PSU or elsewhere.)

At the same time, if he wants a new challenge, fine. Penn State will still have a 2022 season.

How this all has translated to the field and the Lions’ two-game losing streak is tied together.

Roberson, the backup, wasn’t ready — he couldn’t get the team into offense at Iowa and then, with a week’s notice, couldn’t be counted on at home as a 24-point favorite over the Big Ten’s worst offense that the Lions turned into road graders.

So an already banged up Clifford was exposed when he should have been rested and closer to the 100 percent he claims he will be in the Big House — just kidding — the Horseshoe.

A day after his Illinois gaffes, Franklin was again asked about his future and tying it to the fact that Penn State is getting a new president soon (Eric Barron is retiring).

Franklin admitted “there’s a lot of moving parts,” but he expressed confidence in Board of Trustees Chairman Matt Schuyler.

At one point in Wednesday’s mini-press gathering, to deflect the topic, Franklin said, “I’d love to sit down with you guys over a beer and talk about this in detail.”

That sounds to me like a December toast to eight years from a guy who is strongly considering riding off into the sunset, whether that’s in the west or south.

In the meantime, the Horseshoe is no place for a distracted team.

Rudel can be reached at nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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