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Penn State Football: Franklin Keeping It Close Against Buckeyes

by on October 19, 2016 2:00 PM

At this point it's a well documented fact that James Franklin has yet to beat a ranked team as head coach. No wins at Vanderbilt and no wins at Penn State. The Nittany Lions nearly upsetting Ohio State and Northwestern, but one game went to double overtime and the other was a dropped interception or a third down conversion from victory.

Aside from the fact Vanderbilt's chances of beating a ranked team aren't much greater than a sanctioned Penn State's chances, it's a statistic that merits acknowledgment but frequently comes without a lot of context. Vanderbilt played powerhouse SEC teams, Penn State has generally gone of up against Ohio State and Michigan State who have been two of the best teams in college football the past few years.

So yes, it isn't flattering and yes winning against better teams is part of how you become a better team, but it all really comes back to the ongoing discussion of how good Penn State ought to be right now. This isn't a program on a cusp of being a top third team, this is a program on the cusp of being potentially above average if everyone stays healthy and recruiting continues to bring in talent.

And yet in spite of all of this Penn State has for the most part held its own the past two years against Ohio State.

In 2014 it was a 17-0 deficit turned 17-17 tie after regulation. Penn State even had a chance to win it in the final minutes before Sam Ficken tied the game. That was if nothing else an unprecedented turn of events to get that far in the first place. JT Barrett was injured, but that didn't make Penn State's offense suddenly competent.

"I thought one of the things I thought we did really well that year was we got the crowd involved early in the game and kept them involved early in the game," Franklin said reflecting. "I think last year, we were able to do that, at times, but not as consistently as we would like."

On the road in 2015 the chance of Penn State's survival were considerably less by any reasonable standard. Beating Ohio State at home is akin to launching the space program in your backyard. Sure, you can try, but in the end you're going to fail.

And yet in the fourth quarter Penn State had the ball inside the Ohio State 15 down 24-10. It was a turnover on downs that doomed the Nittany Lions and two late touchdowns killed the upset attempt. But still, Penn State was right there, despite a million reasons why that game never should have been a game.

"Last year, we didn't do (big plays) consistently enough and we did some things, we had some big plays last year and got penalties which took points off the board, which you can't do," Franklin added.  "The margin of error against these types of teams is too small. So you have to play; you have to play well. That's what we plan on doing again on Saturday."

Can Penn State do it again? The Nittany Lions have always been a team that stylistically matches up well with Ohio State. That's not to say that the two programs have been on the same level, but sometimes the DNA of two teams almost always results in a competitive game. Both defenses have four shutout quarters over the past eight played between the two teams. This series has featured scoring in burst but there hasn't been a runaway train since 2013.

"I think a lot of it goes back to what we've talked about before is matchups and style of players" Franklin said. "There's going to be some teams, depending on kind of where you're at in your program, that are not going to be good matchups and vice versa. You see it every week when you're watching games on Saturdays through Thursday night, a team that you think is going to dominate and they go out and play and they don't play as well and you wonder why, and a lot of it deals with matchups."

Penn State will need more than matchups to go its way to win on Saturday, but don't be surprised if for the third straight year, this game isn't over as early as you might expect it to be on paper.

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