Some Openers “Pretty Cool” & Others Not So Much for Franklin, Penn State Football
James Franklin stared at the piece of paper listing the statistics from his two season-opening games as East Stroudsburg’s starting quarterback.
Those games are two decades and one continent ago.
“That’s pretty cool,” he said on Tuesday, cracking a wide grin as he took a quick breather while preparing for his team’s flight to Ireland.
Both games – 45-14 at Kutztown in 1993 and 31-14 at Lafayette in 1994 – were resounding victories. They came with eye-popping numbers for Franklin, who admitted as recently as Tuesday that he went to ESU “to be honest with you, because of football.”
In his first college start ever, on Sept. 11, 1993, Franklin completed 15 of 25 passes for 234 yards, with three TD passes, and he also ran for another score. That game got off to a Franklin-esque awesome start, as he threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to Jake Hlavac just 68 seconds into the contest. ESU dominated 32-7 at the half, on five touchdown drives – two capped by a Franklin touchdown toss and a third on his one-yard TD run.
“I don’t remember that game. No, not all,” Franklin admitted as he scanned the stat sheet. “But Dennis McWhite (who caught seven passes for 96 yards) was a high school coach (and now an official). And Jake – I still keep touch with Jake.”
Franklin, who no doubt loves to win – “that’s why I work so hard at recruiting,” he said this spring – is also all about the relationships. He remembers connecting with people more than he does his own TD connections, albeit two decades ago.
“Some people can remember all the numbers and statistics,” he shared on Tuesday, shaking his bald head a bit. “But I’m not one of those guys.”
Franklin does recall his second season-opener as ESU’s starting quarterback, in 1994 when the Warriors traveled the 29 miles down Route 611 to Easton, where they defeated Lafayette. Franklin had 360 yards of total offense, throwing for 290 yards while completing 18 of 32 passes, with two TDs and two interceptions. He added 60 rushing yards on 19 carries.
“What I remember about that game is that we beat a Division I-AA team,” Franklin said. “That’s what made the game special.”
AT VANDERBILT, FOR OPENERS
ESU is and was a Division II school, so the win over Lafayette came with its own challenges. But not as great as the ones Penn State will face in Dublin on Saturday, when the Nittany Lions play a Central Florida team that was 12-1 and beat Baylor 52-42 in the Fiesta Bowl last season.
Franklin will be seeking his first win as Penn State’s 16th head coach. He will also looking for his first win in a season-opener in three seasons. At Vanderbilt, he won his first game as a head coach in 2011, as Vandy beat FCS-level Elon, 45-14. But the Commodores lost the next two openers, 17-3 to No. 3 South Carolina and Jadeveon Clowney in 2012 and 39-35 to Ole Miss in 2013.
With his two wins as an ESU QB and two losses as a Vandy head coach, Franklin’s season-opening history in football has been merely so-so. With those as bookends, Franklin has an 11-10 record in opening games. He’s 1-2 as a head coach at Vandy, 2-0 as a starting college quarterback and 8-8 as an assistant coach. His season openers as an assistant coach range from a 17-3 loss against the Detroit Lions in 2005 as the Green Bay Packers’ receivers coach to a 20-13 win by Washington State, where he was the tight ends coach, over Illinois in 1998.
A .500 record in season openers seems to be de rigueur.
In 2013, there were 31 head coaches in their first year at a specific major college team (although they may have been a head coach elsewhere). We’re talking guys like Sonny Dykes, hired last year at Cal by then-AD Sandy Barbour (who’s now the PSU AD), the born-again Bobby Petrino and that Hog, Brett Bielema. Collectively, they finished a near-perfect .500 at 16-15. Perhaps it’s even-steven because there has to be a winner and loser in every game. Or, maybe, because for their season-openers college football teams typically schedule a cupcake – or are the cupcake.
In 2012, Ohio University was hardly a cakewalk for Penn State. There were the scandal and sanctions to deal with; Bill O’Brien was a rookie head coach; and Ohio – coached by wily veteran Frank Solich – was a very good team. Penn State led 14-3 at the half in Beaver Stadium, but as O’Brien later admitted his team was dead on its legs and its emotions were exhausted over the final two quarters. The Nittany Lions were blanked in the second half as Ohio won, 24-14.
Penn State lost again on the road the next week at Virginia, 17-16, as the Lions had a Fickens of a time with field goals (Sam missed four field goal attempts and had a blocked PAT) to go 0-2. O’Brien finally got his first win as a head coach in Week 3, with a 34-7 victory over Navy in Beaver Stadium. Somewhat ironically, although Navy was coming off of a bye week, its previous game was a 50-10 loss to Notre Dame — in Ireland.
Like in 2014, Penn State opened the 2013 season at a neutral site – MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford against Syracuse. The Nittany Lions won, 23-17.
That made O’Brien 1-1 in season-openers as a Penn State coach. (Joe Paterno was 39-7, while his predecessor and mentor, Rip Engle, was 12-4.) Overall, since 1900 Penn State has had 13 head coaches. Collectively, they’ve gone 8-4-1 in their first game as a Penn State head coach. Nine had their first game in the month of September.
These are the other four: Tom Bradley, the interim head coach after Paterno was fired, saw his squad lose 17-14 to Nebraska in Beaver Stadium on Nov. 12, 2011, in the most emotional game in Penn State history. In Jack Hollenback’s first game, Penn State beat Harrisburg Athletic Club 58-0 on Oct. 1, 1910. The next year, his brother Bill Hollenback was the head coach and his team beat Grove City, 31-0, on Oct. 2, 1909. Back in World War I, Penn State played just four games in 1918, with the season opener coming on Nov. 2. With Hugo Bezdek at the helm for the first time, they tied Wissahicken Barracks, 6-6.
Overall, since 1887, Penn State is 93-20-2 in season openers. That’s a winning percentage of .817.
WHAT'S ON SECOND
The trick, of course, is not just winning the season-opener, but the game after that. And the game after that. And the season-opener after that.
Paterno always said a team’s biggest improvement came between the first and second games.
So, apparently that means – win or lose against Central Florida – Penn State’s efforts on Sept. 6 vs. Akron in Beaver Stadium will be oceans apart from how the players perform in Ireland.