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Blame game: 5 Things you cannot blame on James Franklin after PSU’s 0-5 start

Photo by Penn State Athletics

When something goes wrong, it’s human nature to look for someone to blame. With Penn State off to its worst start ever, many fans have taken to blaming James Franklin.

And being highly, highly critical of the coach.

Some of the vitriol can be found in Franklin’s weekly tweet thread focusing in on the next opponent.

He’s done this for years, and it’s never been much of an issue with the fan base — because PSU was winning. But man oh man, look at many of the responses in the thread to the tweet above, and it’s clear many fans are irate, fed up and have no problem venting their displeasure directly at the coach.

Some examples:

Clearly, there are some things Franklin deserves blame for this season.

First and foremost is the team’s slow starts week after week, which have put the Nittany Lions in big holes and forced them to play catch up. The team has played better in second halves, leading most to wonder: Why the heck can’t Franklin and the coaching staff get the team to play like that from the outset?

Some poor in-game decisions also fall on Franklin. But he’s always struggled in that department, even when PSU was winning lots of games the past four years.

The terrible oversight to not make sure Devyn Ford didn’t score a touchdown in the final two minutes at Indiana turned out to be devastating to this team. If Ford doesn’t score, Penn State wins that game, and who knows, maybe the confidence level is entirely different from that point forward.

OK, so certainly Franklin deserves his fair share of blame.

But not everything has been the coach’s fault. Here’s a look at the 5 Things Franklin can’t be blamed for this season.

1: The incredibly unfortunate and ultimately dooming player losses: Micah Parsons made the decision to opt out and turn pro. Journey Brown has a heart issue. Noah Cain suffered a season-ending injury on a freak play on the first series of the season. Pat Freiermuth got banged up and will miss the rest of the season.

Look, that’s your four best players. If all of those players were on this team and healthy, the Lions are probably 4-1 (with a loss to Ohio State), not 0-5 and the biggest disappointment in the country.

We can dissect things any way we want with this team. We can criticize Sean Clifford and lament about the QB situation. We can rip Franklin’s decision making. But if this team had those four players, everything would be different, and that’s something we cannot overlook.

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Franklin can preach next man up all he wants, just like every coach does. But when you lose your four best players, there ain’t no more next man up stuff. It’s scramble and panic time, and it would be that way for just about every other college team.

2: The bad call at Indiana: I still strongly believe that Penn State won that game, and that Hoosier QB Michael Penix Jr. did not successfully convert the 2-point conversion. Franklin didn’t blow that call. The refs did. And had that call gone Penn State’s way, the Lions would have left Bloomington with a victory and a level of confidence, instead of a feeling of devastation.

Yes, PSU still would have lost to Ohio State in week two, but had the Lions beaten Indiana, they still would have had a lot to play for with just the one loss. Instead, with two losses, all of the team’s preseason goals were gone, and the squad just has not recovered from that mental disappointment.

3: Clifford’s poor play: Let’s face it, Sean Clifford has crushed James Franklin this season. When your veteran quarterback who’s expected to play well comes out and plays so poorly, it’s gonna be really bad news for a whole bunch of coaches at any level.

A lot of players on both sides of the ball have struggled. But Clifford’s turnovers at Indiana were awful and led to a loss that forced this team to question itself and, probably, to start questioning the quarterback. The turnovers continued, forcing Franklin to do what he had to do in benching Clifford and giving Will Levis a shot. But Levis probably isn’t good enough to beat a quality opponent, as we saw against Iowa.

Maybe there are things Franklin could have done along the way to help with Clifford’s development. But no one foresaw the problems the QB has had this season, and those problems have buried the Lions.

4: The COVID issues: The Penn State football team has had 44 false positives. Holy hell, that’s just staggering. I’ve written and talked about it being a big story and having a major impact on the team, but fans don’t really seem to care all that much. Almost nobody mentions it as another reason for why this team may not be all that focused.

“Everybody else is dealing with COVID, too,” a lot of fans are probably thinking. That’s not untrue, but it also shows a lack of compassion and understanding for just how all of this has affected THIS Penn State team. When you couple all the false positives, missed practices and general life turmoil they’ve caused for so many players and staff with losing the first couple of games, it’s understandable that a lot of members of the team might not be fully bought in to football.

OK, so isn’t it Franklin’s job to make sure they are all bought in? Sure. Under any normal circumstances. Nothing about this year or this season is normal, so I’ll cut the coach some slack when it comes to players feeling a little disenchanted.

5: The players’ lack of effort: Penn State’s players have long thrived on getting a lot of juice out of the big crowds at Beaver Stadium. Those crowds aren’t there this year, so the players have to find a way to motivate themselves.

Yes, there are things Franklin or any head coach can do to help with motivation. But ultimately, it’s up to the players to go out and prove that they give a damn. That they will give their all. That they want to be there. There have been too many situations this year — from poor effort to poor tackling to poor play — that falls directly on the players.

They deserve a lot of the blame here too, rather than having all of it fall on the coach.

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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