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Penn State Football: Franklin's Promise x 9 — “We Will Get This Fixed”

by on September 28, 2014 10:00 PM

“We will get it fixed.”

James Franklin repeated that phrase nine times in his 10-minute, 8-second post-game press conference on Saturday.

The Penn State head coach said it three times in his opening statement, punctuated by, “I promise you and guarantee you we will get it fixed.”

Then he said “we will get it fixed” four more times among his dozen answers, covering 1,218 words before he was done.

And he did it twice more in his closing. Flanked by daughters Shola and Addy, Franklin peered out at a sea of media types about #140strong, before tilting his head back and looking up at a congregation of recruits and parents looking down at the press conference from the second-floor football recruiting lounge.

“Once again, I want to thank everybody for coming,” he said. “I want the fans, the media, the recruits and everybody to know that there’s nobody that cares more than this coaching staff and these players. We will get this fixed. We will get this fixed.”

The first-year head coach didn’t share a timetable, but the tone of his voice and his fixation on fixing led you to think he meant days, not months.

Franklin made it sound as if a bye week, some long nights in Lasch by his staff, a couple of rolls of offensive line-strength duct tape, some body armor for Christian Hackenberg and a few more stellar performances by true freshmen like linebacker Jason Cabinda – who had eight tackles in his college debut vs. Northwestern -- will do the trick.

Who knows? Maybe he’s right.

QUICK FIX AT VANDY

He did it at Vanderbilt. (And that’s how he ended up at Penn State in the first place.)

Franklin arrived in Nashville on Dec. 17, 2010. The four seasons before he landed there from Maryland, Vanderbilt had an aggregate record of 19-33 -- 2-10, 2-10, 7-6 and 5-7. That’s a losing percentage of .674. The Commodores had only recorded seven wins four times in the previous 50 years. Franklin did it three times in three seasons. That’s some quick fixin’. So we know he’s impatient.

Franklin arrived in State College on Jan. 11, 2014. The four seasons before he arrived Penn State had an aggregate record of 31-19 – 7-6, 9-4, 8-4 and 7-5. That’s a winning percentage of .620.

It was a mixture of good and bad. The 7-6 2010 season was marred by a quarterback controversy, but Penn State was 8-1 in 2011 when Joe Paterno was fired. After that, everybody was trying to fix everything – even those things that didn’t need to be fixed. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Penn State was (almost) torn down by the NCAA in a day -- July 23, 2012, to be exact. But it never really happened -- the losses last season to Indiana and Ohio by a combined 107-38, notwithstanding.

Penn State's 2014 season was supposed to be the truly down year of the whole sanction cycle. That possibility still exists, although a lot less than two years ago -- or even two months ago. Penn State is now sitting at 4-1, which includes a 6-2 mark over the past eight games. Despite its desultory 29-6 loss to Northwestern, which exposed its many deficiencies, Penn State’s record is tied for 18th-best among the NCAA’s 125 major college football teams. The Lions are right there with Big Ten brethren Rutgers, Maryland, Iowa and Minnesota, as well as LSU, Duke and Missouri.

Of course, that 4-1 record was built on the 99th-toughest schedule in the NCAA for the first five weeks of the season. The final stretch is the 56th toughest. So, context is everything.

“We’ve been able to get by with this by playing smart, playing hard, playing with tremendous effort and persevering,” Franklin said. “Let’s be honest, we haven’t played pretty all year long and it caught up to us today against a good, solid, well-coached, hard-nosed team.”

FIXATED ON MICHIGAN

The next four weeks seem like a lot of time for offensive coordinator John Donovan, offensive line coach Herb Hand and special teams coordinator Charles Huff to figure things out, if only for the short term. Time is on their side. Their only game for the next 26 days is Oct. 11 at Michigan in the Big House. The Wolverines are 2-3, attendance is lagging and Brady Hoke’s days are numbered.

Michigan is broken. They’re 3-8 in their past 11 games, they have the nation’s worst turnover differential (minus 12), they have lost three games in September for the first time in school history. And they are 43-38 since the end of the Lloyd Carr era. If a place with a rich football tradition ever needed fixed, it is the University of Michigan. That they play Rutgers next Saturday at night in the unfriendly and decidedly Jersey confines of High Point Stadium could just exacerbate the low point that is U-M football.

“The bye week couldn’t come at a better time. We have to spend some more time cleaning some things up there,” Franklin said.

“We can really spend time, going back, watching this game, correcting the issues that have been showing up throughout the entire season and really spend the week focused on us. We would love to go into the bye week with a win, knowing you still have issues that you need to get resolved. We weren’t able to do that, but the bye week couldn’t come at a better time.”

Thus, the odds of Franklin “getting it fixed” by Ann Arbor are fairly good. But it will be a short-term fix, at best.

Returning Penn State back to prominence will require a lot more work. Bill O’Brien held things together with a group of once-in-a-lifetime seniors. The job was tougher than anyone still knows. The 15 players with the most career Penn State starts by the end of the 2011 season did not return for 2012. O’Brien began the 2012 season with a roster that featured a cumulative 132 starts. In 2013, it was 164.

FIXING THE STARTS

And in 2014, for Franklin’s first season, the roster featured 186 returning starts – not counting the injured Miles Dieffenbach (25), Adam Breneman (5) and Ben Kline (2). The problem? It’s been obvious: Twenty of those 186 starts were made by offensive linemen (actually, lineman singular, in the person of Donovan Smith) and only 17 by linebackers, while a full 25% (46) came in the secondary. That’s why Shoop has been nickel-and-diming it in all those money situations.

That’s why Franklin and his band of 15 former Vandy coaches and staffers have been recruiting their butts off. Dr. Franklin needs players. STAT. You’ve seen the games, you know where fresh transplants are needed. The NCAA’s latest statistics for its 125 FBS teams, released Saturday night, bear out what we’ve been watching. Special teams are especially hurting, as starters are doubling and tripling up, and the players in the wings – and on the wing – are not of the usual caliber that comes with a full complement of scholarships.

Plus, an inexperienced O-line getting OTJ training leaves Hackenberg rushed, getting pounded or a combination thereof. But somehow, he has hung in there to throw for 1,477 yards – sixth-best in all of college football.

The rankings (No. 1 is best, No. 125 is worst):

-- Net punting, 113. Kickoff return defense, 108. Punt return defense, 96.

-- Rushing offense, 112. Sacks allowed, 104. Sacks for losses allowed, 100.

-- Scoring offense 97. Passes had intercepted, 88. Turnovers lost, 85. Completion percentage, 80. Red zone offense, 76.

Now for the good news:

-- Rushing defense, 2. Total defense, 10. Scoring defense, 12.

WHAT THE FIXTURES SAY

Of course, numbers don’t begin to tell the full story with Penn State, at least over the past few years. So while Franklin’s promise to get things fixed is understandable, it means little without the buy-in of his players. Or the right players.

The Nittany Lions’ two biggest leaders, best players and most cautious team spokesmen – Hackenberg and linebacker Mike Hull, ranked 21st in the country, with 10.6 tackles per game -- said all the right things after the loss on Saturday.

Hackenberg: “We have a lot more time in get in the film room and prepare for Michigan and learn from this game. We’re going to come together. We’re a tight-knit group. We always are.”

Hull: “We trust the coaches will get it right in the next couple of weeks.”

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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