Losing to in-state rival Pittsburgh in 42-39 loss to the Panthers is one thing, but barely beating Temple and getting shelled by 39 points at Michigan is another. In two-plus seasons, Franklin had led a Penn State program still trying to recover from scholarship sanctions to a 16-14 with no wins that came close to notable.
Two months later, Franklin could be named the Big Ten coach of the year after leading No.8 Penn State to its first Big Ten championship game, where it will take on No.6 Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium Saturday night.
“Instead of talking about what Penn State was, people are now starting to talk about what Penn State is,” Franklin said. “And that’s exciting.”
Entering October, Franklin’s three year tenure at Penn State included wins against Indiana (twice), Rutgers (twice), Temple (twice), Akron, Army, Buffalo, Illinois, Kent State, San Diego State, Maryland, UMass, UCF and Boston College (bowl game). The closest thing Franklin had to a marquee win is a double-overtime home loss to Ohio State in 2014.
That changed in late October. Penn State snapped Ohio State's streak of 20 consecutive true road wins under Urban Meyer when it won when trailing going into the fourth quarter by at least 14 points for the first time since at least 1982.
That result certainly caught the attention of Wisconsin wide receiver Jazz Peavy.
“They’re definitely a physical team,” Peavy said. “They are one of those teams that are going to play all four quarters and put everything out there just like every other team I feel like we’ve play. They’re not going to give up or just let anyone beat them because they are ranked higher than them. They are a tough team for sure.”
The Nittany Lions have rolled since, outscoring Purdue, Iowa, Indiana, Rutgers and Michigan State by a combined score of 232-81. They also take advantage of halftime, as Penn State is outscoring opponents 118-47 in third quarters this season.
The success started immediately after the Michigan loss. Trailing 13-3 at halftime to Minnesota, Penn State outscored the Gophers 17-0 in the third quarter and won 29-26 in overtime.
In the 45-12 win over Michigan State Saturday that clinched its trip to the title game, Penn State outscored the Spartans 35-0 in the second half, as four touchdowns went for at least 34 yards.
“We’ve done a good job of making halftime adjustments and getting a really young team settled down and focused on the things to matter,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to do a better job as players and as coaches to adjusting earlier in the game. As the season goes on and you play better and better competition, you can’t afford to start out slow. That’s an emphasis for us.”
Those four lengthy touchdowns were off the arm of quarterback Trace McSorley, who led the Big Ten in pass efficiency with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions. He had career highs in passing yards (376) and touchdowns (four) for the Spartans and helped the Nittany Lions end the season third in the Big Ten in scoring (36.6 ppg) and fourth in total offense (429.7 ypg).
Penn State also has one of the best tailbacks in the conference in Saquon Barkley. Averaging 5.3 yards per carry and has 15 rushing touchdowns, the 5-11, 223-pound Barkley has 1,219 rushing yards and 327 receiving yards but suffered an ankle injury Saturday.
Franklin is confident he’ll play but said the staff has been “blessed” at that position with Miles Sanders and Mark Allen filling in as reserves.
“We feel great about the depth we have at that position,” Franklin said. “Those guys have worked extremely hard.”
Much like Minnesota, Penn State can get after the quarterback, ranking second in the country with 8.7 tackles for loss per game and 12th with 3.1 sacks. Since giving up 326 rushing yards to Michigan and 228 rushing yards to the Gophers, Penn State is giving up only 96 yards over the last seven games, including keeping Purdue, Iowa and Rutgers all under 50.
“They won eight games in a row and I think there’s a team that’s developing, growing,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I think they’re playing at a high level and our confident. I think in many ways present challenges. Offensively they are explosive in both the running game and the passing game. Defensively they play a lot of guys and put pressure on a lot of offenses. Special teams you see their athletic ability. I think they’re playing at a high level. Really good football players, well coached and playing with confidence.”
This will be the fourth trip to the conference title game for Wisconsin since the game was created in 2011, juxtaposed to Penn State making its first trip. Instead of going out recruiting a year ago, Franklin worked the game between Michigan State and Iowa as a guest commentator for FOX.
Call it foreshadowing or not, but Franklin wanted to do it to get a feel for the environment, watch how the teams handled the walkthroughs and get a grasp on how to handle the situation. A year later, he’ll put that knowledge to the test.
“I’m really proud of how our team has grown and played and preserved,” Franklin said. “This is going to be a tremendous challenge but we’re excited about the opportunity.”