STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — During the final minutes of Penn State’s latest loss to an elite opponent, Nittany Lions fans stopped along the railing during their walk toward the exits.
Michigan’s 24-15 win over Penn State was cemented, and some of the blue and white faithful had hit their boiling point. It was the most tense it’s been during James Franklin’s 10-year tenure — more than the boos at halftime in 2016 against Minnesota, more than the stunned disbelief after the one-point loss to Ohio State in 2018.
One fan shouted in the direction of Franklin to inform him there is an opening at Division II East Stroudsburg. (There isn’t a coaching vacancy, but you get the point.) Another man, after screaming profanities in the direction of the head coach, doubled back only to belt them out again. The Beaver Stadium public address announcer reminded fans not to throw objects on the field.
No. 3 Michigan takes the top-10 matchup at Beaver Stadium. pic.twitter.com/oYXu9YjvrG
— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) November 11, 2023
Franklin, who was later booed as he walked through the tunnel, was seemingly oblivious to it all. In the final minute, he stared across the field at an unbeaten Michigan team that was without its head coach yet still found a way to dismantle Penn State. The Wolverines proved yet again something that Penn State was reminded of last month with a loss at Ohio State: This is a Nittany Lion football program stuck on repeat.
It’ll likely win out with games against Rutgers and Michigan State and finish 10-2 once again. Depending on how the field shakes out, Penn State might get into a New Year’s Six bowl, but it also could be on the outside looking in, hanging its hat on wins against Iowa and West Virginia.
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Penn State has the makings of being much more than that, yet, in reality, it’s nowhere close to it. It has a five-star quarterback in Drew Allar, who on Saturday didn’t look the part. Allar completed 10-of-22 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. Allar’s fumble in the third quarter recovered by the Wolverines proved to be the turning point for an offense that has largely disappointed this season.
Penn State even has a prized left tackle in Olu Fashanu, who several scouts eyed during warmups, and a five-star running back in Nick Singleton, who hasn’t had the kinds of eye-popping moments in 2023 that he did as a true freshman. Singleton earned the start over Kaytron Allen — Penn State keeps insisting it loves both backs despite Allen looking better this season — and yet Mike Yurcich’s play calling again is what stands out. It’s become a theme in big games.
“We gotta do a better job of calling a game to allow a quarterback to get into rhythm,” Franklin said, again not delivering a ringing endorsement for Yurcich, his fifth offensive coordinator at Penn State. “That is critical. We gotta find easy completions for our quarterback to get into rhythm. That’s what everybody does.”
Well, except for Penn State yet again in a big game.
Even with one of the best defenses in the country — one that was gashed for several big plays, though — it’s the same story for the Nittany Lions. Just like last season, just like it’s been around here during most of Franklin’s tenure, Penn State can’t win the biggest games, can’t really even come close to pulling it off. It has one of the highest-paid coaches in the sport and yet even the financial commitment hasn’t helped elevate this program to a higher position. Penn State will officially never make the four-team College Football Playoff, and who knows whether or not the 12-team field will make it any better for this program.
For as much as Franklin has lamented fans being critical of his programs after wins — and he has several times this season — the reality is many in this fan base are fed up. They’re tired of the fizzling out in the biggest games, annoyed by more of the same — and rightfully so.
Since Penn State upset Ohio State in the regular season and beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game in 2016 — a moment this program hasn’t achieved since — Penn State has lost 13 of its 14 games against AP top-10 teams. After the win in the Rose Bowl against Utah to cap last season, Penn State didn’t take a step forward despite featuring a roster loaded with talent.
Franklin is a combined 4-16 against Ohio State and Michigan since becoming Penn State’s head coach in 2014. He is 3-17 against AP top-10 opponents at Penn State, including 2-8 when the Lions are ranked in the top 10.
Penn State can’t beat Michigan with Jim Harbaugh on the sideline. It can’t beat Michigan without him. It can’t beat Ohio State even with several of the Buckeyes’ best players missing the game. In both games the offense underwhelmed, the quarterback was far from sharp and the wide receivers struggled to create separation.
“Very similar to the other game,” Franklin said, referencing the play of the quarterback and receivers after top wideout KeAndre Lambert-Smith was held without a catch.
Penn State can likely once again celebrate being a double-digit win team and can run up the score against lesser foes like Delaware and UMass, but Franklin isn’t being compensated so heavily to beat those types of teams. Penn State needed to at least split games against Ohio State and Penn State this season, and couldn’t get it done. The biggest games of the regular season ended with a thud.
“We’ve lost to the No. 1 and the No. 3 teams in the country,” Franklin said. “That’s not good enough. We gotta find ways to win those games.”
This whole operation has a “Groundhog Day” feel to it.
Why didn’t Allen touch the ball again early in the second quarter after picking up 9 yards on the first play? Franklin said the pass on second down to reserve receiver Malik Meiga that lost a yard was meant to be a run. Based on the defense’s look, Meiga became a “relief throw.” Allar ran the ball on third-and-2 and gained 1 yard while Allen retreated to the sideline.
Why was Penn State going for two late in the second quarter when it could’ve made it a 14-10 deficit with the extra point? Why did it go for two again late when an extra point would’ve made it a one-possession game at 24-16?
“We felt like points were going to be hard to come by,” Franklin said. “We wanted to put ourself in a position to get it back to a field goal game. Again, those were all the numbers we worked through from an analytic standpoint as a staff. Everyone was comfortable with that, thought it was the right thing to do.”
Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy completed 7-of-8 passes for 60 yards. The Wolverines found out after landing in State College on Friday that their head coach wasn’t permitted to be on the sideline on Saturday. After the game, a whiteboard on the Michigan sideline read “Free Jim.” On the other side were the words “Don’t need 2 steal 2 win.”
Harbaugh arrived at Michigan one year after Franklin was hired at Penn State. In that time he’s taken his program to places that Penn State keeps dreaming about. Yes, Penn State was starting at a different point coming off NCAA sanctions. However, the sting of losing to Michigan, of being defeated again by a team that’s everything Penn State wants to be is likely why the frustrations hit a fever pitch.
As Franklin walked into the tunnel after the game, fans in the concourse who are usually waiting to greet him with hi-fives and cheers instead booed and shouted, “Win a game!” Regardless of how the rest of the season goes, it’ll be another offseason of questions about a head coach and a program that were unable to win a marquee game yet again.
(Photo: Andy Litzinger / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)