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Penn State Football: To Be Frank(lin) With You About Facing a Juggernaut That is Ohio State

by on November 21, 2019 8:00 PM

James Franklin has faced juggernauts before.

Take Alabama in 2011. Please.

Just five games into his tenure as head coach at Vanderbilt, Franklin took a team that went 4-20 in its previous two seasons to Tuscaloosa, Ala.

And there, as a 29-point underdog in Bryant-Denny Stadium, Vandy lost 34-0 to Nick Saban and Alabama. The Crimson Tide went on to win the national title.

As the wide receiver coach with the Green Bay Packers in his single season as an NFL assistant in 2005, Franklin saw the Packers get hammered 48-3 by the Baltimore Ravens — in addition to later losing a regular-season game to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the eventual Super Bowl champions.

All with Brent Favre at quarterback.

The Nittany Lions, of course, are on the verge of juggernaut status themselves. Over the past four seasons, Penn State is 40-10 (.750) overall and 27-7 (.794) in the Big Ten. 

In that time, in the conference — and almost across the nation, Clemson, Oklahoma and Saban’s Alabama squad not withstanding — only Ohio State has performed better. Since 2016, with Urban Meyer at the helm for three of the past four seasons, the Buckeyes have been 46-5 (.901) overall and 31-3 in the conference (.912).

Ohio State’s only Big Ten losses in that time have been to Penn State (24-21, 2016), Iowa (55-24, 2017) and Purdue (49-20, 2018). Over the past three seasons it’s been Penn State 88, Ohio State 87. But also: Ohio State 2 wins, Penn State 1.

So, when Franklin says that “we've played them probably as well as anybody over that period of time,” he’s right.”

Of course, when the Penn State coach adds that it’s “obviously not good enough — we've got to take the next step,” he’s also right.

(For comparison’s sake, Ohio State’s stated rival, Michigan, last beat the Buckeyes in 2011, having lost the last seven games by a combined 275 to 169, with a double-OT OSU win in 2016 wedged in there.)


Which brings us to 2019. And this Saturday at noon in The Horseshoe.

The Buckeyes are 10-0 overall, 7-0 in the Big Ten, and ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll and the College Football Playoff rankings. They’ve won every game by least 24 points. They’ve won 76-5, 73-14 and 52-3. Their average margin of victory is 51.5 to 9.8. (Penn State’s is 38 to 11.2, discounting its loss at Minnesota.)

Ohio State has won on Fox and with seven players in a box. They’ve beaten teams here and beaten them there. They’ve have beaten teams everywhere.

Franklin — who has spent the week poring over tapes that have featured former Nittany Lion recruits like quarterback Justin Fields and offensive tackle Thayer Munford, as well as likely All-Americans like running back J.K. Dobbins and D-end Chase Young — has noticed.

Franklin, now in his sixth season at PSU and set to coach his 77th game in the conference and 116th game as a collegiate head coach, thinks that the Buckeyes under first-year head coach Ryan Day may be the best team in the Big Ten he’s ever faced.

At his weekly presser on Tuesday, he said of Ohio State: “Probably the most talented roster we’ve watched on tape. Definitely this year. Maybe since we've been here. It’s going to be a great challenge.”

He doubled down early Wednesday morning, calling into the Golic & Wingo show on ESPN radio and television.

Then, after practice on Wednesday evening, I asked Franklin, if what he’s seen so far, are the Buckeyes definitively the best team of his tenure in the Big Ten?

Franklin hedged a bit. But not much.

“It’s hard to be definitive about something like that. It’s a gut feeling,” he replied. “Just when you watch the tape and you see the length and you see the athleticism and see the production, it’s hard to argue with it. When you talk to people in the profession who I know and respect and they talk about the probable number of draft choices and things like that, it’s probably a combination of all those things.

“But to be definitive, no, it’s hard to say. I’d have to go back and do some field study on who we’ve played in this conference and what their rosters were like. And there was the SEC, obviously, for three years and there were good teams there. But it’s up there. It’s in the conversation. They’ve put together an impressive roster and they’re playing at a high level right now.”


Here’s the kicker (quarterback, actually):

Franklin completed his answer by saying that with Fields at QB, the Buckeyes are a better team in 2019. Better than in 2018, when in Meyers’ last season as head coach Ohio State went 13-1 with Dwayne Haskins at quarterback. All Haskins did was throw for 50 TDs and just eight interceptions, and earn MVP honors for the Big Ten title game and the Rose Bowl.

Why? Justin Fields.

Fields, for his part, has thrown for 31 TDs and just one pick, while rushing for 377 yards and 10 touchdowns, with only two lost fumbles. 

“Obviously,” Franklin pointed out to conclude his response, “Justin has come in and changed things for them. He’s taken them to another level.”

Franklin then raised his right hand above his head and shoulders to show how much Fields — who committed to playing for Franklin on Dec. 1, 2016, then revoked his commitment on June 17, 2017 — has elevated the Buckeyes.

When Franklin rolled out his staff’s scouting report against the Buckeyes in the Penn State team meeting room inside Lasch Building on Tuesday, he was struck with a case of the onesies.

The Buckeyes’ prowess is no laughing matter.

“It’s funny,” Franklin shared. “We go over the major stats on Sunday (with staff) and then on Tuesday we go over them with the team. And you put up, ‘Here’s their scheme. Here’s their stats.’ And pretty much it’s No. 1. And it’s No. 1. That’s conference and national.”

Franklin pointed in the air to the right and then the left, as if he was noting the top of two imaginary lists.

 “Then it’s ba, ba, ba,” he added, as if he were going down a checklist. “And you go to defense, and it’s kind of the same thing. They’re ranked pretty high across the board.”

Franklin is correct. Nationally, Ohio State is No. 1 in points per game, points allowed per game, first downs per game, passing yards allowed per game, total defense, third-down offense and red zone defense. Not to mention No. 2 for first downs allowed per game, turnover margin and sacks per game.



But Franklin also provides a good counterargument.

You can be awestruck or say, aw shoot — we can beat these guys.

“It’s the fine line of paying them the respect they deserve, but not overdoing it as well,” Franklin said. “We have a good football team as well. We’ve been pretty good on the road in some tough environments. This will be a tough one, but I do think the experience of going on the road and winning, like at Iowa, is helpful.”

Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth is a succinct kind of guy. Straight to the point. Being a 19-point underdog doesn’t faze him.

“They have athletes everywhere. We have athletes everywhere, too,” said Freiermuth, who is eligible for the NFL Draft after the season and this may be playing in his final contest against the Buckeyes.

“I agree with what coach said: There's going to be some big plays on both sides of the ball made. We have to roll with the punches. Hopefully at the end of the day we come out on top.”

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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