In 24 hours, Penn State head coach James Franklin has managed an emotional shift in momentum that few coaches ever encounter.
Five years past sanctions that decimated the program and two-plus seasons into a rebuild that had lacked a proof-of-concept signature win, Penn State upset No. 2 Ohio State, 24-21, Saturday.
In an instant Penn State is now a potential 10-2 program favored in every remaining game in 2016, and Franklin has to shut off the attention he’s scrambled to earn for three years.
“It’s already done, except for the players who will talk to the media this week,” he told SB Nation on Monday. “It’s all Purdue, Purdue, Purdue, already. We got a head start Sunday on shifting out of it.”
Franklin’s week was also couched by extreme emotions. He dedicated the win to his niece and nephew, who lost their father, Franklin’s brother-in-law, to cancer last week. Franklin drove to Philadelphia after practice on Tuesday, and after a whirlwind weekend, sat down early on Monday morning to explain the passing to his 8- and 9-year-old daughters.
“It’s certainly been a long weekend,” he said.
The emotional shift can’t be overstated. The first player to hug him on the sideline Saturday night was defensive lineman Garrett Sickels, who helped stymie the Ohio State offense with nine tackles and 2.5 sacks after being suspended the first half for missing a class.
“Garrett’s been a model citizen for us for three years. We just had a situation where we had a bye week and some guys wanted to get home early for the long weekend. He ended up not going to a class,” Franklin said.
“I’ve been in a lot of places where you put the right guys on the field regardless, so there’s nothing better when you can reinforce that type of message and still win. That carries a lot of weight. He came out and played with his hair on fire, and then he’s the first person to grab me at the end of the game, and tells me he loves me.
“A win like this, it helps everything.”
1. The momentum-changing touchdown before the half almost didn’t happen.
After a pair of 1-yard gains set up third-and-9 on their own 28 with less than a minute ticking away, Penn State coaches were split on maintaining the drive and risking any kind of turnover or pressing on to add points before Ohio State would start the second half with the ball.
After a blocked field goal on their first drive, the Lions’ next five possessions had averaged 15.2 yards. Down 12-0 and without Trace McSorley’s favorite target, tight end Mike Gesicki, Franklin wanted some kind of momentum on offense, so the potential reward outweighed the risk.
“There was a lot of debate on the headset, so that’s why we called timeout. The decision [to keep going] ended up being a crucial sequence in the game, so it was definitely a big moment.”
McSorley hit passes of 19, 34, and 20 yards on the touchdown drive, the first three catches of the game for Penn State’s receivers.
2. Penn State’s defense rode the hot hands.
The defensive approach to the Buckeyes was simple: Create pressure up front and prevent explosive plays of 20-plus yards. J.T. Barrett was sacked six times and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt, thanks in part to a healthier Lion linebacker core. PSU returned linebackers Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell from injuries after a month off the field.
“I told the media and the team our plan was to play those guys about 25 plays, because to expect them to come back and play a full game wasn’t realistic. Bell finished with 69 plays, so: so much for planning. He got hot.
“And I take pride in being organized and having a plan as anyone, but you have to trust your players’ instincts.”
3. 2016 Penn State is a complete Big Ten roster, but it’s still building.
It always fails in the media and among fans, but Franklin’s internal sales pitch during his first two years, operating under 65 scholarships, was look how close you already are. That meant turning a 2014 double-OT loss at home to Ohio State in Franklin’s first season into a stepping stone.
“I think part of the win goes back to that game. We took that same team to double overtime with 65 scholarship players. It absolutely had an effect on this game. Our guys came into prep thinking they could play, that they belonged.”
Entering this game, the Nittany Lions had only five senior starters, with two on offense, but there’s normal depth at every position group, including an O-line that was paper thin through Franklin’s first two years. Running backs Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders are underclassmen, and four of the five leading receivers are juniors or younger. New coordinator Joe Moorhead’s passing game currently ranks second nationally in S&P+.
“In camp, I thought we looked like a Big Ten team, in terms of depth, size and athleticism, but I’ve seen progress since I’ve got here. But no one recognizes progress until you have a win like this,” Franklin said.
4. Junior safety Grant Haley’s game-winning touchdown on the blocked Ohio State field goal was almost a film session video for the ages.
“We watched the video on Sunday, and Haley’s one of the fastest guys on our team. But he almost got walked down by their kicker and holder at the end of the run. I think he knew he would’ve never heard the end of it in the locker room if that happened,” Franklin said.
5. The whiteout has become one of PSU’s best recruiting tools.
Franklin said around 180 recruits were in attendance, as the whiteout has become a recruiting tactic as much as celebration. The staff met with targets through Sunday afternoon, emphasizing the environment in Beaver Stadium.
“I think if you ask most of the guys on the roster now, they’ll remember visiting here during the 4-OT whiteout vs. Michigan [in 2013]. They still talk about, because that type of game and environment stays with you. That’s why I’m serious when I say that the fans were a part of the victory; it’s more than just being loud.
“Obviously a win like this helps everything, but the stadium has a huge effect on people. It’s a testament to the fans and the community and our team pulling in the same direction.”
Now that James Franklin has his signature win, Penn State’s recruiting should flourish. https://t.co/h2ki79bw2z— Black Shoe Diaries (@BSDtweet) October 24, 2016