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Ben State Football: 30 Minutes That Saved James Franklin, For Now

by on September 12, 2016 2:00 PM

For a good long while it looked like Pitt was going to quite literally run Penn State off the field. As someone who picked Pitt to win, the Panthers being up in the game wasn't a huge surprise. They're an experienced team, hosting their cross state rival who just so happen to be fairly young and equally unproven.

So winning, sure that made sense. But pounding Penn State into the ground? That seemed a little less likely.

And yet there it was, happening in front of nearly 70,000 fans and even more watching at home. Penn State was getting taken to the woodshed on defense. This wasn't a matter of an Ohio State or Michigan having more speed and talent, this was a war in the trenches and Penn State was getting throw to the side like wrapping paper on Christmas morning.

To a certain extent that probably shocked Penn State, all of this hype and excitement and the Nittany Lions are looking down the barrel of a 14-0 deficit before the national anthem was over. And then it was 21-7 and then it was 28-7 with time winding down in the second quarter. Say what you want about preparation, Penn State wasn't the better team that half and no amount of film study was going to change the fact the Nittany Lions were getting physically beaten on the field. 

At this point the whole James Franklin experiment seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Not in the sense that Franklin was going to get the Lane Kiffin treatment and never make it on the bus, but if you were going to point to a moment where the end began, it was this hot afternoon in Pittsburgh.

But then Penn State scored, suddenly a 21 point lead was just 14 points with an entire half of football left to go. Sure there were lots of things to fix during halftime, but on paper a two possession game is a challenge not an impossible task. A few Pitt mistakes, a few positive adjustments and Penn State would be right back in this thing. At least in theory.

And that theory became a reality. A second half that saw Penn State put up 25 points while the defense gave up only one real scoring drive, Pitt scoring 14 points in the final 30 minutes of play but seven of which thanks to just a 10-yard drive following a long kickoff return. Both teams landed knockout punches and both teams landed counters in return.

As a result James Franklin went from a guy sitting on the hot seat to a guy who could point and tell you that things are working.

Yes, it should probably be noted that Penn State lost the game, but things went from an unmitigated disaster to the feeling that Penn State isn't spiraling out of control. The Nittany Lions lost a shootout, they didn't --ultimately-- get driven into the ground. More importantly Penn State's offense did things it could have only dreamed of doing the past few years. That counts for something.

If the big picture is more important in the long run Penn State had nine passing plays of 15+ yards and five rushing plays of 10+ yards. This is an offense equipped to play in high scoring games backed by a defense more inexperienced than anything else. How much better that defense can get is the question that will probably define the season. Penn State is going from needing to hold teams to fewer than 20 points to have a chance to win to making it a race the 45. An odd twist in the plot of the past few seasons, although not as odd as living in a world where Penn State is running fake statue of liberty plays.

The result isn't Franklin being absolved of all blame, if such a thing even exists, but rather that he can say there has been progress made. His (Joe Moorhead's) offense is scoring points and racking up yards and the defense is young and in theory improving. So for the first time in a long time you can actually see Penn State getting better on the field, even if getting better still results in a loss. How much better it can get is the 4 million dollar question that may not reasonably be answered for another year or two.

There isn't anyway around it though this weekend's game against Temple is a must-win. Only so much "We almost won" will make up for the fact Penn State hasn't done much of it under Franklin, circumstances aside. That's something he knows and to his credit acknowledges.

But Penn State was down and out on Saturday and clawed back into a game on multiple occasions and nearly won in the process. And that's the first time in a while you can say that about Penn State football.

And so James Franklin lives to see another day.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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