College football takeaways: How James Franklin botched Penn State's heartbreaking opener

Pete Thamel
·18 min read

There’s so much to like about what James Franklin has done at Penn State. He’s rebuilt the program from the throes of NCAA probation, turned the Nittany Lions into a consistent College Football Playoff contender and brought a sense of football normalcy to a town and program that desperately needed it.

Franklin is one of the sport’s top-10 coaches, something that can’t be questioned after his resuscitation of Vanderbilt and resurrection of Penn State. He’s won 70% of his games at Penn State and averaged 10.5 wins the past four years.

Since taking over at Vanderbilt in 2011, game management and clock management have lingered as one of the nitpicks on Franklin’s charmed record. There has been questionable timeout usage, bizarre late-game play calling and just enough examples of general laissez-faire handling of in-game management that a sour reputation had formed.

On Saturday at Indiana, Franklin committed one of the cardinal sins of game management. He took a game that Penn State had won with absolute statistical certainty and allowed his team to lose it when the Nittany Lions showed an abject failure of understanding time and score. It was the type of unconscionable lapse that will be referred to for years, as Penn State invited Indiana back into the game and became their enabler for a historical moment.

The turning point of a dramatic Penn State win to an unforgivable 36-35 loss – Indiana’s first over a top-10 opponent since 1987 – came when the Nittany Lions should have been icing the game for a win.

Up 21-20 with 1:46 left, Devyn Ford burst through the line of scrimmage and didn’t realize Indiana’s defenders were letting him score. Instead off falling on the 1-yard line and taking a knee, he scored on a 14-yard touchdown run on first down that put Penn State up 28-20 after the extra point.

Penn State head coach James Franklin watches during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Indiana, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 36-35 in overtime. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Penn State head coach James Franklin watches during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Indiana, Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 36-35 in overtime. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Ford looked as if he’d been instructed to stop, as he stutter-stepped before the end zone prior to entering it. But he should have slammed on the breaks, dove to the ground and got into victory formation. Franklin took responsibility after the game, telling local reporters: "It’s my job to make sure everyone understands those situations, and obviously right there, that didn’t happen.”

Clearly, the message didn’t get across. And Indiana coach Tom Allen completely outsmarted Franklin, as he’s today’s sideline genius for using Jedi mind tricks into allowing Penn State to score and invite Indiana back into the game. Indiana did just that, scoring with 22 seconds left and tying the game at 28.

In Indiana lore, the picture of quarterback Michael Penix reaching for the game-winning two-point conversion in overtime will be stashed in saloons next to the short-shorts shots of Dakich guarding Jordan. The Penix play was so close, so inconclusive and so wonderful that it gave a tortured program its big moment in the spotlight. Out of the ambiguity of that call, Indiana football rose from its own muddled football history.

For years, this will go down as the game that coaches use to warn their players why they can’t score up one in the final minute of a game. Always end the game when you have a chance to end the game. Take a knee, be disciplined and avoid the searing heartbreak and relentless criticism that Franklin deserves for not providing his team clear instruction: “What we wanted to do is get as much as you can and get down,” he said when asked what he was looking for.

A loss to this Indiana program isn’t the mortal sin it would have been a few years back, as Tom Allen has slowly built Indiana into a respectable Big Ten team. But the way Penn State lost will haunt them, especially because so much focus will be on State College this week with Ohio State coming to town. ESPN’s “College GameDay” will be there, and Penn State’s clock management error will be the reason why this isn’t the top-10 matchup everyone expected.

Penn State is 1-3 against the Buckeyes the last four meetings, but the Nittany Lions have been outscored by an average of just two points in that time. Michigan, on the other hand, has lost to the Buckeyes over that stretch by an average of more than two touchdowns (16).

That’s evidence of the good of Franklin, just how stout Penn State has become that they can be toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes.

But that elusive breakthrough to that final niche of the elite isn't coming this year, not with a loss to Indiana. And again for Franklin, as it was early in his career at Penn State, there’s been too much tactical head-scratching.

None loomed larger than Saturday’s blunder, as Penn State’s costly touchdown will be referenced for years to come for all the wrong reasons.

Justin Fields, Ohio State deliver opening statement

As Ryan Day prepared to run out onto the field at Ohio Stadium, he began to get emotional. When he’d addressed the team earlier in the day, Day pointed out the journey to get to Saturday’s Big Ten opener, the collective sacrifice for the team to get to that point and their platform to be a distraction for those enduring the complications from the pandemic.

“I got a little choked up running out of the tunnel,” Day told Yahoo Sports on Saturday night. “I was thinking about all the people in Ohio and Buckeye nation, it’s been a long couple of months. Today was a way to cheer them up. It wasn’t that long ago, we weren’t playing. We did today.”

And the Buckeyes flashed the potential that Day suspected during the tumultuous weeks where he lobbied to help bring the Big Ten season back. Ohio State summarily dispatched Nebraska, 52-17, with an other-worldly performance from quarterback Justin Fields.

In his 2020 debut, Fields began far behind Heisman Trophy favorite Trevor Lawrence. He proceeded to declare via a 20-for-21, 276-yard performance that he’s not ready to cede the trophy without a push. Fields also added 54 rushing yards and a running score. His lone incompletion of the day was a drop in the end zone off a beautiful pass that Chris Olave couldn’t hold onto after getting undercut.

“His accuracy was really good,” Day said. “His poise was good. He scrambled a few times. He didn’t try and force anything. I thought the way he threw the ball today was pretty impressive, the timing and accuracy.”

Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, left, talk with quarterback Justin Fields during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Nebraska Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Nebraska 52-17. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, left, talk with quarterback Justin Fields during the second half of their NCAA college football game against Nebraska Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State defeated Nebraska 52-17. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

The onus could end up being on Fields and the Buckeyes receivers to carry the offense this season. The Ohio State run game needed a transfer from Oklahoma, Trey Sermon, to fill in a roster weakness. Neither starter Master Teague (12 carries for 41 yards) nor Sermon (11 carries for 48) were electric, but they were solid.

Ohio State’s receivers may end up as the team’s strongest position group, as Garrett Wilson (seven catches for 129 yards) and Chris Olave (six catches for 104 yards) are poised to be the Big Ten’s most explosive duo. Freshman Jaxon Smith-Njigba had the day’s most dazzling touchdown, as him dragging his toe in bounds while his entire body had soared past the end zone showcases his precociousness.

And for Ohio State, their debut affirmed exactly who we thought they’d be. “There’s been a lot of tough times,” Day said. “Today is a good day. Was it perfect, no? It was a good day.”

How Waddle’s injury hurts Alabama

The biggest moment of the day with implications on the national title race came on the opening kick of Alabama’s 48-17 blowout of Tennessee.

Star receiver Jaylen Waddle, one of the leaders in the Heisman Trophy race and a first-round pick, suffered a gruesome injury to his right foot. Nick Saban described the injury after the game as combination of a fracture and high-ankle sprain. Waddle left in an ambulance and Saban said he’d “probably” be out for the season.

For Waddle, the injury is significant but does not appear to be so devastating that it will threaten his career. It could cost him some money in terms of draft position, depending on what he can show teams in workouts prior to the draft. With the draft six months away, it’s unknown if he can recover in time to work out.

For Alabama, the loss is significant. He’s the most talented player in their entire program, which means that the Tide will lose their best player for the second consecutive year. Last season, Alabama’s loss of Tua Tagovailoa in November was complicit in the Tide missing the College Football Playoff.

Alabama remains explosive at wide receiver, but this loss means that Waddle’s wingman, DeVonta Smith, will now see an endless flood of double-teams. More touches will go the way of John Metchie III, who had seven catches for 151 yards against the Vols and torched A&M earlier in the year for 181 yards and two scores.

For Waddle, the hope is that this season-altering injury isn’t career altering. He’d been explosive enough – 22.3 yards per catch and four touchdowns already this season – that he didn’t necessarily need more film. He just needs a clean bill of health.

For Alabama, the loss is undeniably devastating. A season seemingly evolving toward their ability to win shootouts continues without their most explosive player.

Missouri flexes on Kentucky

Missouri shocked the country by outlasting LSU two weeks ago, 45-41, in the first win for Eliah Drinkwitz in Columbia. While that victory elicited a flood of attention to Missouri, the comfortable dispatching of Kentucky, 20-10, on Saturday may be more significant.

Missouri isn’t expected to compete with LSU. When it does, that’s special. But year-in-and year-out in the SEC East, Missouri needs to beat Kentucky to have a good season. And Kentucky has beaten Missouri in each of the last five seasons.

Missouri won the game a different way on Saturday, holding the ball for more than 43 minutes and Ryan Walters’ defense limiting the Wildcats to 145 total yards. (Safety Josh Bledsoe secured the victory by forcing a turnover.) Star tailback Larry Rountree carried the ball 37 times for 126 yards, helping Missouri churn out 26 first downs.

“I think we’ve proven we can win either type of game,” Drinkwitz said by phone on Saturday night. He added: “There’s a ton of excitement in our locker room because we hadn’t beaten these guys in five tries.”

Drinkwitz spoke from a local fire pit on Saturday evening. He declined to specify the beverage he was enjoying, but joked that he wished it involved the Rock-n-Roll Tequila promoted by Bob Stoops.

Drinkwitz said the win showcased the continued maturation of redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak, who completed 70% of his passes, took just one sack and didn’t turn the ball over. Missouri had 92 plays and Kentucky just 36, which meant that the Tigers squeezed the life out of the game.

“It just shows that what we’re doing can work,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit.”

Does Wisconsin have a new identity?

For a majority of the past generation, the DNA of the Wisconsin football program took on a predictable rhythm. The Badgers rolled out a strong offensive line, a conga line of dominant tailbacks from Ron Dayne to Jonathan Taylor and a generally stout defense that gladly played complementary football.

But the Wisconsin football formula, as identifiable with the state as its cheese production, appears on the cusp of change. Wisconsin isn’t going to run the Baylor offense, but they do have the program’s first legitimate dynamic quarterback since Russell Wilson toe-touched campus in 2011.

On Friday night against Illinois, Graham Mertz’s first start blew away all the hype. And the hype for Mertz was as big as any player in program history, as he turned down offers from Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Georgia. (Rivals.com ranked him as a four-star recruit and the No. 2 pro-style quarterback behind Auburn’s Bo Nix.)

Mertz delivered one of the season’s best performances – 20-of-21 passing for 248 yards and a school-record five touchdowns. He completed his first 17 passes as No. 14 Wisconsin rolled Illinois, 45-7. Wisconsin lacks a bell cow tailback and this isn’t one of the more dominant offensive lines during Paul Chryst’s tenure, which means we could see a new era for the Badgers.

“Well, it could possibly change from run-first to pass-first, pass to set up the run,” Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez told Yahoo Sports on Saturday. “It was obvious they were loading the box, saying ‘Let’s make the first-time starter beat us.’ You’re going to see different fronts, not as many people committed to the box.”

It also provides an adrenaline jolt to a program which had thrived among college football’s upper class but never quite managed to break through to the elite. A vast majority of elite college football teams in recent seasons have gamebreakers at quarterback that can push the ball down the field. “You need big plays,” Alvarez said. “It makes people defend the entire field … and it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on a defense.”

For Alvarez, there was some personal joy with the new offense. His grandson, Badger tight end Jake Ferguson, caught seven passes for 72 yards and three touchdowns.

“We were always yelling he’s open every play,” Alvarez said with a grandfatherly laugh. “For us, we think he’s running clean every play.”

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Nebraska takes more lumps

In the push to get football to return, Nebraska stretched the bounds of conference decorum. Both athletic director Bill Moos and head coach Scott Frost antagonized the league persistently, including populist threats to play games after the Big Ten postponed the season.

Nebraska’s comeuppance for breaking ranks of league civility came with its schedule. As predicted, Nebraska got handed the most difficult schedule possible, including opening their season at crossover opponent Ohio State. The game was already scheduled, but the Big Ten reciprocated back the middle finger Nebraska stuck up for most of the summer by keeping Penn State and Ohio State and dropping the Rutgers game. All of this went unsaid, but has been very much understood.

Moos continued the chorus of criticism after the schedule was released, continuing to pander to his own fanbase by criticizing the Big Ten’s scheduling. Moos memorably told the Omaha World-Herald he’s got “a great football coach that deserves a break here or there to start getting back on track to being a contender in the Big Ten West.”

The breaks have broken worse than Moos could have imagined after Nebraska took its scheduled trip to the woodshed in Columbus, 52-17.

Nebraska’s Week 2 reality is that it’ll host Wisconsin, and will not have its best defensive backs in the first half of that game. Safety Deontai Williams and corner Cam Taylor-Britt were both ejected for targeting in the second half of the Ohio State loss. That means Nebraska’s secondary – not a strength of the program – will be missing two key fixtures. And that means Mertz will have a watered-down Nebraska secondary to attempt to pick apart next week.

And this wraps us back to the Big Ten. There was an outcry on the Fox broadcast that the calls didn’t justify a suspension next week. Urban Meyer repeated it after the game about the call on Williams.

And fittingly, those pleas for change were to, of course, the Big Ten office.

Rutgers finally back in Big Ten win column

Greg Schiano’s initial first win at Rutgers came at Buffalo in August of 2001, a friends-and-family affair soon forgotten as Rutgers lost by a combined 111-0 the next two weeks.

Schiano’s second first win at Rutgers came on Saturday afternoon, with a few more eyeballs and a much higher-profile opponent. Rutgers forced seven turnovers in a 38-27 victory over Michigan State, snapping a 21-game Big Ten losing streak that prompted Schiano’s return.

Schiano, 54, said his biggest joy in this victory came from seeing the looks on the faces of his players who’d spent years working for this kind of win.

“This is going to sound like an old man, but I was happy for these kids,” he said. “For some of them it had been three or four years. I wasn’t just happy that we could win a game, but that they were able to continue to keep playing when momentum started to shift. It was good. We needed that.”

Rutgers coach Greg Schiano gives instructions to his team during its game against Michigan State on Oct. 24. (Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano gives instructions to his team during its game against Michigan State on Oct. 24. (Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Schiano’s celebration indicated his creep from the young, hard-charging coach back in 2001 to the one with professorial reading glasses that shows up these days on Zoom calls. The players did much more of the celebrating. “A lot of dancing [in the locker room], not by me,” he said with a laugh. “Mack Brown has more rhythm than I do.”

The Scarlet Knights did muster some rhythm and the early stages of an identity on offense, much thanks to transfer quarterback Noah Vedral. (He’s one of 10 transfers, which helped Rutgers overhaul the roster.) Schiano’s biggest hire this offseason came in luring Sean Gleeson from Oklahoma State as the offensive coordinator. Even in Schiano’s heyday at Rutgers, the offense wasn’t exactly cutting edge or artistic.

“I think we have an offense,” Schiano said. “We have a system. And I think the kids really believe in what we’re doing. At times, there was a flow.”

It wasn’t perfect. Rutgers only gained only 276 total yards. But they showed the potential for a defensive identity, with new coordinator Robb Smith back for his second tour under Schiano and leading a unit that allowed just 1.3 yards per carry.

Schiano diverted into coach speak at times in a phone interview on Saturday. Rutgers certainly has a long way to go, and Indiana coming to New Jersey next week presents a new challenge. But this time around, Schiano appreciated the moment enough for an indulgence on the flight.

He opened up a Kit Kat planning to eat half, but ended up eating the whole thing. You can only win your first game for the second time once, right?

Michigan finally gets it right at QB

In the night’s marquee game, Michigan showed the first flashes of a high-end quarterback during the Jim Harbaugh era. After cycling through a flurry of forgettable signal callers from Jake Rudock to Shea Patterson, the debut of Joe Milton hinted that it could be revelatory for the Wolverines.

In Michigan’s blowout of shorthanded Minnesota, 49-24, Milton completed 15-of-22 passes for one touchdown and no interceptions. He ran for 52 yards and another touchdown. Overall in his starting debut, he looked like he belonged in Josh Gattis’ offense and showed why he beat out Dylan McCaffrey for the starting job.

It was great news for No. 18 Michigan, which appeared vulnerable in their opener with four new starters on the offensive line and a flurry of key opt-outs. But Michigan played clean and composed, exploiting a disastrous fake punt and Tanner Morgan fumble to build a 35-17 halftime lead.

It’s early, but perhaps this is the linchpin quarterback that Michigan has been missing during the entirely of Harbaugh’s tenure. Milton appeared comfortable in the run game and spraying the ball around to nine different Wolverines. “Just really played an outstanding game,” Harbaugh said after the game.

Perhaps for a program in search of an offensive identity, this game will be remembered as a building block.

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