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Easier said than done: how does Penn State go from ‘great’ to ‘elite?’

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James Franklin says he wants his program to earn a spot in the top level. The path is simple, but extremely difficult.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

A few minutes after James Franklin’s Nittany Lions dropped a second straight one-point heartbreaker against Ohio State, a questionable fourth-down play call, and what we’ll call a debate with a fan about said call, he had a seat to talk to reporters.

Before taking questions, he delivered an intense monologue that will be mostly remembered for his discussion of going from great to elite.

We’ve gone from an average football team to a good football team to a great football team, and we’ve worked really hard to do those things, but we’re not an elite football team yet. And as hard as we have worked to go from average to good, from good to great, the work that it’s going to take to get to an elite program is gonna be just as hard as the ground and the distance that we’ve already traveled. [...]

Right now we’re comfortable being great, and I’m gonna make sure that everybody in our program, including myself, is very uncomfortable. Because you only grow in life when you’re uncomfortable. So we are going to break through and become an elite program by doing all the little things. [...]

It’s my job as the head coach; I am ultimately responsible for all of it. And I will find a way — we will find a way — and with all the support of everybody in this community, everybody on this campus and the lettermen and everybody else, we are going to get this done. I give you my word.

Not quite as succinct as Tim Tebow’s Promise, but close.

Depending on how many elite teams are allowed in the party, you could make the case that PSU is already there. If it isn’t, then it’s first in the queue.

In the last 24 months, since starting 2016 at 2-2 with a new offensive coordinator (Joe Moorhead) and quarterback (Trace McSorley), Franklin’s gone 24-4, losing only to Sam Darnold and USC by three points in the Rose Bowl, Michigan State by three points in an odd, storm-delayed 2017 game, and Ohio State twice by a total of two points.

They also beat Ohio State to eventually win the 2016 Big Ten title and three other teams that finished with at least 10 wins. They rose from 35th to eighth in S&P+ in 2016, then to fourth in 2017. After losing Moorhead, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft (running back Saquon Barkley), and five other draftees, they stand at eighth after Saturday’s nail-biter.

Still, if college football has a big four right now, a truly elite tier, PSU is not a part. What steps are left for the Nittany Lions to take?

The answers — or at least the ones that are easier to diagnose from afar than Franklin’s call for players to take better notes in meetings — are really pretty simple.

Executing them will be very, very difficult.

1. Recruit better

Franklin has undoubtedly raised PSU’s game. Per the 247Sports Composite, his first three classes (2014-16) had an average ranking of 19.3. In 2017, following the Big Ten title run, PSU signed the No. 15 class. This past February, they surged to sixth.

They stand at only 15th so far for the 2019 class, but it’s incomplete, obviously — their class has almost exactly the same per-recruit Composite average as last year’s class, and their visitor list for Saturday’s White Out was epic. Good closing could result in another borderline top-five class.

Still, there was a what-if in the 2018 class: Georgia’s Justin Fields, the top quarterback and No. 2 overall prospect, was a PSU commit before de-committing and signing with the home-state Dawgs. Per 247’s calculator, holding onto Fields would have meant a No. 4 ranking.

It would have also meant a high-ceilinged successor for McSorley instead of what PSU will be dealing with in 2019 — a battle between senior-to-be Tommy Stevens, current redshirt freshman Sean Clifford, redshirting freshman Will Levis (Fields’ replacement), and perhaps a 2019 four-star dual-threat commit, either Michael Johnson Jr. or Taquan Roberson.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Georgia
Instead of being an understudy behind Trace McSorley, Justin Fields is the QB of the future at Georgia.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Even with Fields, though, PSU would have needed more blue-chippers to keep up with Ohio State. A lot more. Urban Meyer’s recruiting has been other-worldly; the Buckeyes have gone from signing 15 four- or five-star prospects in the 2015 class to 18 in 2016, 19 in 2017, and a ridiculous 23 in 2018.

PSU’s 2018 haul featured 15, which is tremendous for anyone not named Ohio State, Alabama, or Georgia. But if your goal is to overtake the Buckeyes, you might need a few more.

We saw the power of overwhelming recruiting on Saturday night. It offers boundless margin for error.

Through recruiting and development, Penn State proved capable of either keeping up with or over-powering Ohio State in multiple areas. McSorley outplayed OSU quarterback Dwayne Haskins. Receiver KJ Hamler proved the fastest player on the field during a 93-yard catch-and-run. And in a change from recent years, the Penn State defensive front mostly won its battle against Ohio State’s line.

That’s usually more than enough to win. But the Buckeyes were still able to dip into their vast reservoir.

OSU’s defensive front neutralized PSU’s Miles Sanders (16 carries for 43 yards, two catches for two yards), just as they neutralized Barkley — on the ground, at least — last season.

The Buckeyes could barely slow McSorley (21 non-sack carries for 193 yards), but this advantage helped to control PSU in the red zone. The Nittany Lions created seven scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent’s 40) to OSU’s five, and made four other trips into Buckeye territory. But they had to settle for three field goals and turned the ball over on downs at the OSU 24 as well. And on the pivotal fourth-and-5, OSU completely blew up PSU’s offensive line.

Offensively, it took the Buckeyes a long time to find an advantage. Their first eight drives resulted in five three-and-outs, two more punts, and a turnover. With PSU piling up the early-game scoring opportunities, this would typically result in a massive deficit for teams without OSU’s talent. But they were down only 13-0 when they finally started to figure things out.

What did they figure out? Mostly that their receivers were better than PSU’s defensive backs — not only in their receiving ability, but in blocking, too.

They scored their first touchdown on a perfect screen, then found success late on screens, too. The first TD was a result of PSU’s over-pursuit. But PSU wasn’t really over-pursuing late in the game — the Buckeyes were simply executing at an elite level. They couldn’t find a blocking advantage with their 300-pounders, so they went another route.

Good blocking out wide is a product of good technique, coaching, etc. But in OSU’s case, talent and experienced helped. The four Buckeye receivers who did the most damage — Parris Campbell, KJ Hill, Austin Mack, and Binjimen Victor — are all four-star upperclassmen. And among the four tight ends listed on the depth chart, three were four-stars, including freshman Jeremy Ruckert, a top-40 overall prospect from Long Island, distinctly in PSU’s footprint.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State
K.J. Hill scored the game-winner on Saturday night.
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Is it even possible to match OSU’s recruiting? Perhaps not. But to get to Ohio State’s level, as Franklin aspires, he has to get closer.

2. Coach better

Hey, I never said this was a complicated list.

I tend to break team-building for any sport into three categories: talent acquisition, talent development, and talent deployment.

You could make the case that, from a physical standpoint, PSU is developing its talent as well as any school.

We can certainly take measure of the deployment aspect — tactics and game management — however.

Though not entirely fair, Franklin caught flack for some Saturday night decisions beyond fourth-and-5. Critics noted he elected to punt twice inside OSU’s 40 and on fourth-and-1 from midfield as well. He is mostly absolved by context, however.

  • One of the inside-the-40 punts was on fourth-and-9 from the 39.
  • The other was on fourth-and-5 from the 37 with under five minutes remaining and PSU leading by five. They took a penalty to give their punter more room to pin OSU deep, and he did. In that situation, it’s justifiable, even if the Buckeyes drove 96 yards in eight plays.
  • The fourth-and-1 punt was, at worst, debatable. It came with 26 seconds left in the second quarter, odds that PSU could drive far enough to set up a field goal with a limited freshman kicker were not overwhelming, and failure would have meant handing OSU a potential scoring opportunity with a good kicker.

PSU also went for it on fourth-and-1 from the OSU 24 and made a nice play call, a play-action pass to a tight end that was batted down at the line.

Still, the awful fourth-and-5 call was a product of over-thinking and a reminder that PSU’s got a new play-caller. Franklin made an innovative hire when he brought Moorhead aboard, then he promoted Ricky Rahne from within.

That can work out wonderfully. Just ask Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, who lost OC Chad Morris and promoted two assistants (Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott) to co-coordinator. And thus far, Rahne has shown a propensity for not over-thinking — when he finds something that works, be it Sanders between the tackles against Illinois or constant QB draws from McSorley against Ohio State, he’s not afraid to go to the well. His first game-on-the-line moment was a failure, but that doesn’t mean the next one will be.

Still, Franklin is probably as aware as anybody (as is Rahne) that he’ll have to be prepared to make a change if change is necessary. At the end of 2015, he fired longtime assistant John Donovan to bring in Moorhead. If Rahne is taking too long to get up to Moorhead levels, there’s always a chance Franklin has to bring in a new Moorhead.

You can make up ground on the heavyweights with tactical innovation, and that has to continue even without Moorhead.

Meanwhile, third-year defensive coordinator Brent Pry has been mostly excellent (16th in Def. S&P+ in 2016, 14th in 2017 — right along the levels of PSU’s recruiting rankings) and could get his own head coaching gig. At that point, Franklin will have another big decision to make. Does he have a ready-made successor? Does he need to push the envelope? Does he need to import a Brent Venables? (Easier said than done.)

3. Build a better culture

This one’s the hardest to describe and achieve, in part because it only partially involves the coaches. It’s also the one Franklin most directly referenced in his statement.

The easiest way to figure out who will be good is to look at who has been good recently or historically. Why is this?

A lot of it can be explained by resources and recruiting. The teams that have been good forever have the most expansive facilities and broadest fan support, and elite recruits tend to go to the same schools they’ve always gone to.

The winning culture reinforces itself internally as well, though.

One of my favorite quotes from the Boise State oral history I wrote in 2017 came from a discussion about the culture the program maintained through coaching changes.

Running backs coach Lee Marks:

Ultimately with coaches, it’s like the parent and the kid; it goes through one ear and out the other. But if you’re listening to your peers, your older peers, it really helps. Leadership is a big deal, but it falls back on how much experience those older guys really have.

BSU defensive coordinator Andy Avalos:

When we were running plays [without the coaches around] in the summer time, I mean, we were working. And if things weren’t right, the quarterbacks were yelling at the wide receivers. We were on top of each other and holding each other accountable.

That was the culture here. You’re going to hold yourself accountable, and we’re gonna hold ourselves accountable.

Coaches only get so many hours of exposure to their players, and a culture reinforces itself when the older players are serving as de facto assistants. “Trust us, this works.” “Here’s the level of effort it takes.”

Breaking through is hard, in part because the upperclassmen can only preach what they’ve experienced. Penn State hasn’t won a national title, and has only marginally competed for it, since any of the current players were born. Even if Franklin figures out how to raise the bar, buy-in and reinforcement have to take hold, too. That’s not entirely in his hands.

More than 120 FBS programs wish they were Franklin’s program right now. But Franklin’s got broader ambition, and PSU’s run of top-10 quality has given him a desire for something more. Achieving it is easier said than done.