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Penn State Football: In Close Games, Franklin is Among the Best...and Worst

by on January 20, 2019 7:00 PM

Speaking of Penn State and close games…

(This just in from Minneapolis: Minnesota 65, Penn State 64.)

It looks like over the past five seasons, James Franklin is among the winningest major college football coaches in one-score games.

And Penn State is tied for second among Big Ten programs in such contests. (Who knew?!)

From 2014-18, Franklin’s Nittany Lions won 15 games when the final score was decided by 7 points or less.

That’s the same number of one-score victories by Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney in the same time.

Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald has even more — if not the most. (I researched 30 teams, including every Big Ten squad and every College Football Playoff program since its inception.) Since 2014, Fitzgerald won 17 games by a TD + PAT or less a very grand total of 17 times. No wonder the Packers wanted him.

Of course, there’s a flip-side to this double-edged sword…

It also looks like Franklin is among the losingest.

Since Franklin came to Penn State in 2014, his teams have lost 13 games by 7 points or less — a number also matched in the Big Ten by Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, with 13. (Ferentz has won 14.)  Nationally, among the major powers, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly has lost 12 over the past five years.

That makes CJF 15-13 at PSU in one-score games overall, a very good-but-not-great .536 winning percentage. His first two seasons at Penn State, hampered by sanctions, he was a steady 6-6 in one-score games. Over the past three seasons, he’s been 9-7 (.563).

Other Big Ten schools have lost more one-score games than Penn State in that time, but they’ve needed more than one head coach to do it. Since 2014, Nebraska is 8-17 in one-score games, while Indiana is 10-15 in such games. Meanwhile, rival/non-rival Pitt is 12-18 in one-score games over the past seasons.

Under first-year coach Scott Frost in 2018, Nebraska was just 1-5 in one-score games. But here’s where I think the one-score record can be deceiving. Frost has quickly taken Nebraska close to being good and next year, that could be 5-1.

What about Jim Harbaugh at Michigan?

He’s a not-so-stellar 5-8 in one-score games since arriving in Ann Arbor in 2015. Josh Gattis — always a natty dresser; I hope he likes khakis — has his work cut out for him.


Tight games can make or break your reputation as a game-time coach. There’s a lot to be said for getting your team into close games; there’s even more to be said about winning those games.

Franklin is 45-21, with a two 11-victory seasons and a Big Ten title, at Penn State. But how the Nittany Lions have fared in the fourth quarter also defines him.

Since 2014, Penn State has led in the fourth quarter of eight of its 13 one-score losses. Five have come in the past three seasons. (The eight: 2014 — Maryland, Illinois; 2015 — Northwestern; 2016 — Southern Cal; 2017 — Ohio State, Michigan State; 2018 — Ohio State, Michigan State.) 

Give Franklin credit for getting them close. Take it away for not getting over the hump. If the Nittany Lions had held on for a win in at least half of those eight contests, imagine how different things would be. We’re talking CFP territory.

Success in one-score games may separate the good from the great from the elite. To wit:

Over the past five years, Meyer was 15-2 in such games, while Swinney was 15-4 and Nick Saban has been 9-3. Fitzgerald is 17-8, while Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio is 13-7 (that includes an 0-3 anomaly in 2016). You know you’re almost always going be in a tough game with both coaches — who not-so-coincidentally rank No. 2-3 in Big Ten tenure.

And hey: Same goes with 14-13 Kirk. And 15-13 James.

One-score records among the other programs that have made the College Football Playoffs since 2014 are: Florida State (13-7), Oklahoma (11-7), Georgia (12-9), Notre Dame (12-12), Oregon (10-11) and Washington (10-11).


Franklin’s total of 28 one-score contests (42% out of 66 played) make him the King of the One-Score Games — at least in the Big Ten. Ferentz (27) and Fitzgerald (25) are close behind. So many tight games is surely a good indication of coaching prowess, in some ways: Your team is rarely blown out, and your players are almost always in it.

But then there’s Penn State vs. Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl. The Nittany Lions didn’t look ready to play (which is why I think Franklin risked the fake punt: to jump-start his squad) and, ultimately, lost a tight game that in other circumstances they would have, should have likely won. And that’s whether Franklin called for a field goal with four minutes to play or not.

Franklin was 8-7 in one-score games at Vanderbilt, with a stellar 7-2 mark in his final two seasons in Nashville. Since then, the Commodores have been just 8-13 in one-score games.

Speaking of past relationships: In his first season at Mississippi State in 2018, Joe Moorhead was 0-2 in one-score games, falling 13-6 at Florida to Dan Mullen, the coach JoeMo succeeded at Mississippi State, and 27-22 to Iowa and Ferentz — no surprise it was close, right? — in the Outback Bowl.


At Penn State, Joe Paterno was the Lion King of tight games.

Overall, Paterno’s teams were 103-53-3 in one-score games — a winning percentage of .657. That’s a victory in 2 out of 3 games decided by a TD or less. 

As Franklin likes to point out, he uses Penn State’s time in the Big Ten to benchmark his program’s performance. So, this matters: Paterno excelled in close games in the conference as well.

From 1993 through 2011, Paterno’s teams were 40-26 in one-score games (.606). His teams were 14-2 (.875) in one-score games to begin Big Ten play in 1993-98 and were 15-7 (.681) in one-score games at the tail end of his career, from 2005-2011.

Prior to the Big Ten, from 1966-1992, Penn State under Paterno was 63-27-3 (.693) in one-score games. That includes an amazing stretch from 1979-87 when the Nittany Lions were 30-4-1 in games decided by 7 points or less. Ii there was a streak of 14 straight wins in one-score games from ’85-87.

Bill O’Brien, who — despite sanctions and defections — was 5-3 in one-score games, including three of his last four, as well as a 3-1 record in overtime. As interim head coach in 2011, Tom Bradley was 1-1 in one-score games, including a road win at The Horseshoe.


We started with Penn State basketball, so let’s close out with it:

In Pat Chambers’ eight-year reign as head basketball coach at PSU, the Nittany Lions have had 53 games decided by one score (3 points or less) and/or have taken a game into overtime.

In those contests, Chambers has a 22-31 record, with a pretty good 7-8 mark in overtime.

In other words, in tight one-score games and OT, Chambers has a better winning percentage (.415) than Jim Harbaugh (.385).

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