Everything had gone very well for James Franklin since taking over Penn State’s head coaching position.
Since he landed the Penn State job in January, he’s lived a charmed life.
He’d landed a bushel basket full of the nation’s top recruits.
He’d seen the NCAA sanctions against the Nittany Lion football program end, with full scholarships and bowl eligibility restored.
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And, thanks to a couple of dramatic late drives, his football team had gotten off to a 4-0 start.
You almost wondered if anything could go wrong for this guy and how he’d handle it if something did.
Well, on Saturday the bubble on Franklin’s dream season burst.
And the 29-6 loss to what had been a struggling Northwestern squad was reminiscent of the Hindenberg going down in flames.
“Oh, the humanity,” I thought as Christian Hackenberg (a name awful close to Hindenberg) took hit upon hit from the Wildcat defense. Even the Homecoming crowd couldn’t bear to watch at the end as many of the nearly 103,000 fans went streaming out of Beaver Stadium before the final play.
The contest marked the first home game that Penn State had failed to score a touchdown since the infamous 6-4 homecoming loss to Iowa in 2004. Certainly that wasn’t the reminder Franklin had in mind when he had the names removed from the back of the Penn State’s “throwback” jerseys for the game.
So as Franklin walked into the media room following the drubbing from the Wildcats (2-2), you wondered how he’d react.
First, he thanked the fans and credited Northwestern. Then he pointed the first finger at himself.
“I take full responsibility,” he said. “We were not ready to play today.”
The Nittany Lions certainly weren’t ready for a Wildcat defensive line that sacked Hackenberg four times, hit him several more times, sent him scrambling on multiple occasions and held the running game to 50 yards on 25 carries. That total included a 10-yard rush by Cole Chiappialle in mop-up time. Hackenberg had 11 of the carries.
While Franklin got around to pointing out problems on all of the units, he knows he has one massive obstacle to clear.
The offensive line.
Penn State has rushed for just 505 yards this season, but that total was skewed by 228 yards against UMass (0-5), which is giving up about that number per game.
And Hackenberg has been sacked 14 times and hit many more times. While he often does hold onto the ball too long trying to make a big gain downfield, Hackenberg is having to throw a lot because there is no running game. He’s averaging close to 40 attempts per game.
“We’re having the same issue which keeps popping up all year long which is being able to consistently run the ball and being able to protect the quarterback,” Franklin said.
Northwestern, with a pair of standout linemen in Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo, magnified the problem on Saturday.
“We just didn’t exceute,” said tight end Jesse James. “We went out and made mistakes that we’ve made before. ... We’ve got to run the ball. You have to be able to run the ball. It can’t be a one-way game.”
With the run game sputtering, Hackenberg is the only option. At one point Saturday, the Nittany Lions dropped back to pass 16 consecutive times in the second half.
“We were trying to run the ball early in the game,” Franklin said. “We weren’t able to effectively do that, so we started to depend on the pass more.”
That puts the burden on Hackenberg to not only make plays but to take the pounding usually reserved for ball carriers.
“He should not be getting hit,” James said. “That’s on everybody. ... We’ve got to get everything together and make sure we’re all on the same page and keep him standing up. We can’t let him get hit that many times.”
Hackenberg hasn’t pointed fingers, but you wonder how long he can hold up to the pounding. Nittany Lion fans remember how fantastic Zack Mills started his career here before the constant pounding turned him into a shell of the quarterback that he was his first two seasons.
“I know that they are working as hard as any one of us at getting better,” Hackenberg said. “They have gotten a lot better. They are making strides.”
Those strides seem very short right now, especially with the meat of the Big Ten schedule looming.
That’s where Franklin comes back into play.
He vowed several times in his 10-minute postgame press conference to make good use of the coming bye week before the Nittany Lions return to action on Oct. 11 at Michigan (2-3).
“We will get this fixed,” Franklin said. “I promise you and guarantee you that — we’ll get it fixed. ... The bye week couldn’t come at a better time.”
Although linebacker Mike Hull would like to rid himself of the bad taste of a loss, the senior co-captain agrees with his coach on the timing of the bye week.
The Nittany Lions need a week off.
“You get to regroup,” said Hull, who had a career-high 16 tackles Saturday. “You get to work some people in that are younger maybe. You’ve got guys who are a little banged up and you get them healthy again. I think it’s a positive.
“The best thing to get a loss out of your system is getting a win and getting back out there,” the senior co-captain added. “Going into a bye week, we have to be critical of ourselves and learn from our mistakes, but not get too down. You have to stay steady. You can’t get too high or too low.”
That’s good advice for Penn State fans as well. The growing hopes of challenging for a Big Ten title came crashing down down just like the Hindenberg (or Hackenberg).
While 10-2 or better records were being bandied about, we’re back to talking about 8-4 and 7-5 again.
Hull said his younger teammates need to keep their spirits up.
“I think that’s up to the senior leaders to keep them level-headed and communicate with them so they don’t get too down on themselves and the whole team vibe stays high,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble getting those guys’ minds right.”
And Hull has no doubts that Franklin will handle the adversity and make good on his vow to fix things.
“Coach Franklin is a winner,” Hull said. “He’s established that the first four games of the season. He’s going to do whatever it takes and we know that and we trust that about him and all of the other coaches on staff.”