Nittany Lines

Bowl matchup features two programs in flux, waiting for answers

Penn State coach James Franklin watches warmups before the game against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015.
Penn State coach James Franklin watches warmups before the game against Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015. cweddle@centredaily.com

The last time Penn State and Georgia faced off, it was to cement the status of the best team in the country.

Thirty-three years later, the matchup will feature two teams scrabbling for stability after some time spent in flux.

In 1983, “The Catch,” a 48-yard bomb from Todd Blackledge to Gregg Garrity, sealed the Nittany Lions at No. 1.

Now, whether or not head coach James Franklin’s hire to fill the offensive coordinator position bombs will vastly decide the trajectory of the program.

Both programs now draw similarities from the heavy expectations placed upon them.

Georgia just fired its previous head coach, Mark Richt, the owner of six SEC East division titles, two conference championships, nine seasons with 10-plus wins and seven top-10 finishes, for apparently not meeting expectations with a 9-3 record in 2015; a win tally the Nittany Lions haven’t hit since 2011.

Franklin fired former offensive coordinator John Donovan last week for reasons not yet clarified by the head coach himself — but a bottom-ranked total offense and scoring offense that didn’t improve over two years despite eight returning offensive starters, and heavy public complaint and scrutiny coupled with the weight of expectations on the football program were almost certainly the main factors.

And after all the ruckus, the amusing part is, neither of the two programs’ futures can be predicted on the basis of performance in the upcoming TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2, because neither team’s new personnel will be tested.

The last time Penn State and Georgia faced off, it was to cement the status of the best team in the country. Thirty-three years later, the matchup will feature two teams scrabbling for stability after some time spent in flux.

Rodrigue

New Georgia head coach, Kirby Smart, won’t be calling plays or directing the Bulldogs — instead, assistant coach-turned-interim head coach Bryan McClendan will fill the role. Penn State has yet to hire an offensive coordinator, and quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne will call plays during the bowl game.

Franklin said via teleconference on Sunday night that he hopes to have a name in place before then, but he’ll take the extra time if the best candidate possible isn’t available and Rahne will call the plays regardless, as the new coordinator evaluates the players and organizational structure of the program.

“At this point Ricky Rahne is fulfilling those responsibilities on our staff and I hope to have the position filled in the next week and a half to two weeks or so,” Franklin said. “But we’ll see how the process plays out. That person would probably come on and spend that time evaluating our players, evaluating our staff and being able to have some input but it’s not like we’re going to put in a new system right before the bowl game.”

A sense of normalcy was emphasized by Franklin for his players despite all the uncertainty as they head into the bowl period.

“I think for our players, to not have that in the back of their mind and being concerned or worried about what the future holds...They’ll be able to set up meetings with that guy and sit down with him as well and get to know each other on a personal level,” he said. “I really think it allows them to be focused on the game and not be concerned or distracted about what the future holds and what it’s going to look like. And to be honest with you, the same with me. As a coach you constantly have 25 things on your desk that need to get done and as long as we can find the right person and make the right hire, that’s one less thing we can focus on.”

That statement was echoed by McClendan, who was peppered with questions about Smart and his new role during his availability on the teleconference.

“I tell you what,” he drawled. “It’s definitely uncharted waters for me. All I can try to do is make sure I get as much stuff on the front end, so I can see and prioritize what I need to do. Bottom line is, regardless of whatever title is next to my name, I still have responsibilities to fulfill ... . Right now, we’re focusing on the TaxSlayer Bowl. And that’s where my energy is going to be.”

Franklin said the process of reaching out to possible candidates (which may also include NFL coordinators) and added that his phone has “been ringing off the hook.” The candidate will likely not be internal, as the head coach said he wants someone with several years of playcalling experience.

Three names immediately come to mind.

▪  Jason McEndoo, a former offensive lineman at Washington State, was the 2011 American Football Coaches Association FCS Assistant Coach of the Year after 12 years as an assistant coach at Montana State before he headed to No. 13 Oklahoma State last season to coach the tight ends and fullback/tight end hybrid that he calls “Cowboy backs.”

He’s a big guy with bigger energy, who told Scout last year that his “ultimate goal” would be to be an offensive coordinator or head coach, and his specialties include both recruiting (he has pipelines in the West that Penn State has hardly touched that could draw some salivating from Franklin) and something in which Penn State was sorely lacking last season: Blocking. At every position that requires it, the Hokies are very, very good on the block and that’s due to McEndoo.

A source told the Centre Daily Times that they personally felt McEndoo was “happy” at Oklahoma State, but the skills the assistant could bring are intriguing at the least. Another potential Oklahoma State name could be Mike Yurcich, who is the team’s current offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach… But he has recently been linked to the head coaching vacancy at Tulane, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

▪  Bob Stitt is the wily, creative and incredibly productive head coach of the FCS-division Montana Grizzlies, and for Penn State fans hoping for a similar style of big offensive numbers that broke Ohio State loose of the traditionalist Big Ten, he is their top pick.

In reality, because he’s a brilliant mind that molds a playbook to the skills of its players, Stitt is a better candidate for an FBS head coaching job than that of a coordinator — especially at Penn State, where it’s been made clear after three playbooks had been used in four years for some players, this one isn’t changing much.

But it would be incredibly fascinating to see what Stitt could do with that playbook, and the depths at which he could explore it — and to hire him would be to essentially land a whale, something in which the ever-recruiting mind of Franklin takes much pride.

▪  Sean Lewis is Bowling Green’s co-offensive coordinator and has brought along the team’s offense — modeled, said former head coach Dino Babers to USA Today, after Art Briles’ Baylor attack. It’s an attack that capitalizes heavily on strength of receivers and creates opportunity for running backs, and is balanced as such. The playbook is deep and spans attacks on every type of coverage, and is productive enough to be both a flashy and sustainable pickup should Penn State go that route. The No. 4-ranked offense produces 561 yards per game and scored 77 touchdowns this season.

Lewis himself played tight end for Wisconsin back in the early 2000s and knows the position well, which could be a boon to Penn State, though he currently works more with receivers. However, Babers may just try to bring his old coordinator along for the ride as he transitions into his new gig at Syracuse.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 814-231-4629, @JourdanRodrigue

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