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Here’s how Penn State went from ‘James Franklin hot seat’ to ‘Playoff?’ in 2 months

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The Nittany Lions were 2-2. Now they’re Big Ten East champs. So what actually improved, and will it work against Wisconsin?

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State
Big Ten East trophies: James Franklin 1, Jim Harbaugh 0
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Life comes at you quickly. That can be either a good or bad thing.

For Penn State and head coach James Franklin, it's the former.

Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour put to rest the idea that head football coach James Franklin is on any sort of hot seat, or is coaching for his job this season, on Wednesday while in Altoona for a Blair County Chamber of Commerce, as the Lions prepare for a meeting with Minnesota on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

"He's not on the hot seat, and he's not going to be on the hot seat in December," Barbour said, according to the Altoona Mirror.

On September 29 — barely two months ago — Barbour was forced to address rumors of Franklin’s status. The Nittany Lions were 2-2 with losses to Pitt (by a little) and Michigan (by a lot), and with expectations being a confusing concept in Happy Valley, many assumed trouble.

Franklin was 16-14 with the Nittany Lions.

Since leaving Ann Arbor, he is 8-0.

Penn State is No. 7 in the latest CFP rankings and will play No. 6 Wisconsin in Saturday’s Big Ten title game in Indianapolis. PSU’s upset of Ohio State, along with Iowa’s upset of Michigan, sparked a division title run, and now the Nittany Lions are only a couple of breaks away from the national semifinals.

  • Point A: Franklin might be in some trouble.
  • Point B: The Nittany Lions have an outside shot at the Playoff.

We absorb the narratives for each team, but those narratives sometimes end up with holes, and we sometimes forget to figure out how we got from Point A to Point B. And the narrative for 2016 Penn State seems to have neglected one important question.

How the hell did Penn State become so good, so quickly?

First things first: Penn State wasn’t that far away.

From my 2016 Nittany Lions preview:

Franklin inherited a team that had quickly fallen from 13th to 29th to 52nd in S&P+ (and from nine wins to eight to seven). The NCAA's sanctions were scaled back but still crippled depth. While attempting a return to normalcy, Franklin has made minor improvements. PSU ranked 46th in S&P+ in 2014, then rose to 30th last year.

The optics haven't been great. Improvement on paper is only worth so much when you're 0-6 against Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State and you lost to Temple last year.

Because it takes a while to reestablish depth, and because he took over a roster that was on its third coach in four years, I would say Franklin has done a decent job.

That on-paper improvement is less convincing when you’re getting thumped by rivals (or at least, the schools you want to rival). But it was still there. Rising from 46th to 30th to 11th (their current rank) in S&P+ over two years seems logical and linear, even if going from “hot seat?” to “Big Ten champ?” in two months does not.

Still, the in-staff turnover was a bad sign. Franklin lost defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to Tennessee and offensive line coach Herb Hand to Auburn — both horizontal moves — and made a change at offensive coordinator, bringing in Fordham’s Joe Moorhead. A program on an upward trajectory doesn’t tend to have moves like that unless assistants are getting head coaching positions.

So what has actually improved?

In short, the passing game.

Penn State’s offense ranked 53rd in Rushing S&P+ in 2015 and ranks 73rd in 2016. The defense ranked 15th in Def. S&P+ and now ranks 11th. That doesn’t scream “Massive improvement!”

However, the Nittany Lions have improved from 73rd to a staggering third in Passing S&P+. Funny how much of a difference that can make.

You can make a case that the threat of speedy running back Saquon Barkley opens up opportunities in the passing game, but sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley has been one of 2016’s unsung heroes.

Departed starter Christian Hackenberg and Franklin just never seemed to click, and the former blue-chipper declared for the NFL draft after completing only 54 percent of his passes in 2015. He is taking a redshirt year after getting drafted by the New York Jets in the second round.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Penn State
Trace McSorley has been mostly fantastic over the last 2 months.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

McSorley had none of Hackenberg’s recruiting hype — he was a mid-three-star recruit, per the 247Sports Composite — and took a bit to work his way into the job. He threw for 332 yards against Pitt but tossed an ill-advised pick at the end; through five games, his passer rating was a decent 135.9.

McSorley’s passer rating over the last seven games is 164.9. That rating over a full season would rank him third among power-conference quarterbacks, behind only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Washington’s Jake Browning.

He destroyed the same Iowa defense that frustrated Michigan (11-for-18, 240 yards, two touchdowns, 209.8 passer rating) and finished by torching the Michigan State defense that had just limited Ohio State (17-for-23, 376 yards, four touchdowns, 268.6 rating).

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the offense's 2016 improvement is that it seems incremental, like step one of many.

Penn State's biggest issue in 2015 was inefficiency. The Nittany Lions ranked 111th in success rate, and they were constantly losing yardage; they ranked 120th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 111th in Adj. Sack Rate.

Penn State still ranks only 83rd in success rate and 119th in stuff rate (a potentially major issue in facing a Wisconsin defense that ranks 15th and 34th, respectively). But the passing game has improved, the sacks have diminished (34th in Adj. Sack Rate), and the added efficiency has opened up more big-play opportunities. The Nittany Lions have 32 passes of 30-plus yards, fourth in the country.

Inefficiency renders you inconsistent. It forces you to operate out of second-and-9s and third-and-7s, and even the best passing-downs offense isn’t always going to succeed on passing downs.

But Moorhead, McSorley, and an absurd receiving corps (each of the top nine targets averages at least 13.9 yards per catch, and eight average at least 9.1 yards per target) have enough explosive gains to create consistency where none should exist.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State
Chris Godwin leads the team with 762 receiving yards.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Since scoring only 10 points against Michigan, the Nittany Lions have scored at least 29 in seven of eight games and have averaged at least 6.5 yards per play in six. Inefficiency still catches up against tremendous defenses — Wisconsin’s qualifies — but Moorhead’s downfield opportunities, and McSorley’s ability to get the ball to downfield receivers, mean an increasingly scary offense.

And despite a shaky run game, PSU has improved dramatically when it comes to finishing drives: The Nittany Lions have risen from 107th to 29th in points per scoring opportunity.

McSorley, by the way, is a sophomore. And there are no seniors in the receiving corps.

Great defenses can slow this offense down. Wisconsin has a great defense.

So the Nittany Lions probably can't rely on scoring 40 points in Indianapolis. But they are good enough defensively that they won't need to score 40.

Promoting linebackers coach Brent Pry to defensive coordinator while bringing in Tim Banks as safeties coach and co-coordinator ensured some continuity.

Meanwhile, turnover on the defensive line had an effect on the defense, even if it wasn't the kind you might expect.

Tackles Austin Johnson and Anthony Zettel and end Carl Nassib combined for a ridiculous 45.5 tackles for loss and 22 sacks in 2015. Their departure could have portended doom, and PSU fell from 1st in Adj. Sack Rate to 29th and from 10th in Passing S&P+ to 28th.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State
Garrett Sickels has led a retooled, mostly dominant defensive front.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

But despite that and a run of linebacker injuries — Brandon Bell has played only eight games, Jason Cabinda seven, Jake Cooper six, Nyeem Wartman-White three — the run defense has improved. The Nittany Lions rank 18th in Rushing S&P+.

The end position hasn't been as prolific in terms of sacks, but stuffs haven't been an issue. Garrett Sickels has 6.5 non-sack TFLs, Torrence Brown 5.5, and redshirt freshmen Shareef Miller and Ryan Bucholz have combined for five more.

Pitt and Michigan ran all over the Nittany Lions in September; the two combined for 667 rushing yards, nine rushing touchdowns, and 6.4 yards per carry. But PSU hasn't allowed more than 4.8 yards per carry since, and Ohio State was the last to rush for more than 110 yards.

You probably have to throw to beat Penn State. That has become hard. Can Wisconsin?

The Badgers' passing game grades out well on a per-play basis — 12th in Passing S&P+ — but their success is based on play-action. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook hasn't thrown more than 19 passes in a game since October 15, and he has averaged just 9.7 passes per game over the last three weeks. If the Badgers can't run, they probably can't pass either.

One more improvement worth mentioning: special teams. Penn State’s improved almost across the board.

You can find special teams efficiency ratings on the Football Study Hall stat profiles. Penn State’s 2015 profile is here, and the 2016 profile is here.

  • Field goal efficiency: 37th in 2015, 19th in 2016.
  • Punt efficiency: 110th in 2015, 35th in 2016.
  • Kickoff efficiency: 77th in 2015, 22nd in 2016.

The return game has been mostly a wash, but Penn State’s special teams has gone from giving away about 0.3 points per game to taking about 1.5. It probably isn’t a coincidence, then, that the Nittany Lions have also gone from 2-2 to 3-1 in games decided by one possession.

No matter what happens in December, Franklin’s Penn State has dramatically altered its perceived fate.

There is no more hot seat talk, only talk of a young team that grew dramatically this fall, perhaps a year earlier than expected.