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Smeltzer’s Sunday 7: Best James Franklin Wins at Penn State

Penn State ranking James Franklin Franco Harris
Penn State Athletics

James Franklin has won 78 games as Penn State’s coach. Today, I’m going to rank his seven best. First, here are three that just missed the cut.


Penn State 35, Purdue 31, Ross Ade Stadium,  Sept. 1, 2022

Penn State’s run to the Rose Bowl this past season doesn’t happen without Sean Clifford’s epic last-minute drive that culminated with his touchdown pass to Keyvone Lee. It was a great win in a hostile environment. I just think there are seven James Franklin wins that were better.

Penn State 53, Memphis 39, Dec. 28, 2009, Cotton Bowl Classic, Dallas

This marked a successful end to one of the four 11-win seasons James Franklin has had, and featured Journey Brown (Penn State bowl record 202 rushing yards) playing the game of his life. Why is it only an honorable mention? Well, it was only Memphis, after all.

Penn State 16, Wisconsin 10, Sept. 4, 2021, Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wisconsin 

Penn State beat a top 15 team away Week 1, contradicting one of society’s biggest critiques of Franklin: “He can’t beat a good team on the road!”

This one probably would have made the list if Penn State finished that season a little better than 7-6.


Penn State 26, UCF 24, Aug. 30, 2014, Ireland 

It wasn’t a win that ended up mattering to Penn State much from a record standpoint. Penn State ended up going 7-6 in Franklin’s first season, so as far as wins and losses go, all beating UCF Week 1 did was help Penn State avoid a losing season and make a bowl game. But the reason this game is on the list is because it was Franklin’s first game at Penn State and his first win, thus kicking off a new era in thrilling fashion. Penn State win on a last-second field goal by Sam Ficken, and did so in a unique location: Ireland. It’s still the only time Penn State’s played a game outside of the United State’s.

The combination of it being the first game James Franklin won at Penn State and happening in the fashion that it did is enough to make the cut.


Penn State 29, Minnesota 26, Oct. 1, 2016, Beaver Stadium 

At the time, beating Minnesota didn’t seem like a big deal. Sure, it’s always fun for fans to watch their favorite team win in overtime, but at the moment, it felt like all this win did was keep Penn State from dropping to 2-3. But given the way 2016 ended up going for Penn State, beating Minnesota ended up being huge. Without that win, there’s no Big Ten Championship, and who knows what dropping to 2-3 would have led to for Franklin and Penn State.

Maybe the team still would have beat Ohio State and ended up with double-digit wins. Maybe it would have unraveled to an ugly finish that would have put the future of James Franklin in peril. We’ll never know what would have happened if Penn State didn’t come back against Minnesota, and fans are thankful for that.


Penn State 45, Michigan State 12, Nov. 26, 2016, Beaver Stadium

It would have been even sweeter for Penn State fans Michigan State didn’t stink in 2016. Nonetheless, clinching what’s still the school’s only Big Ten division title will always be an important moment in Big Ten history. Probably the most famous moment from that November day in Beaver Stadium wasn’t anything that happened in the game, but rather when Penn State fans found out that Ohio State beat Michigan in overtime, which meant that all Penn State had to do was take care of business against three-win Sparty.

Penn State trailed 12-10 at halftime, and ended up winning by 33, thus beginning a party in Happy Valley and ending one of Mt. Nittany’s most exciting college football seasons. Beating Michigan State and winning the East also opened the door for another great night in Penn State history one week later, and I’ll have more on that in a bit.



Penn State 35, Washington 28, Dec. 30, 2017, University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Arizona 

More than a few Penn State fans view that 2017 season as a disappointment, and not without merit.

Coming off a conference championship, Penn State came into the campaign with national title aspirations. The fact that Penn State didn’t achieve those aspirations hurt the program and its fans,  and losing its only two games by a combined four points— and coughing up second-half leads in each— hurt worse. But Penn State regrouped to win its last four games, culminating in a Fiesta Bowl win over Washington. This was Franklin’s first New Year’s Six bowl win, and it ended the season— and Saquon Barkley’s college career— with good vibes and added to the hope for big things in the future.


Penn State 35, Utah 21, Jan. 2, 2023, The Rose Bowl, Pasadena

This one doesn’t need much explaining since it happened so recently. Penn State ended one of Franklin’s best seasons by winning the last traditional Rose Bowl ever. Pretty neat.


Penn State 38, Wisconsin 31, Dec. 1, 2016, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

This could have easily been No. 1, and if it’s No. 1 on somebody else’s list, I wouldn’t argue. Penn State’s only one the Big Ten four times since it started competing in the conference in 1993, and only one it outright twice. So, yeah, winning the conference doesn’t happen often and is a massive deal when it does. The way Penn State won its most recent Big Ten title was even better. The team fell behind 28-7 and came back to win, 35-31. Unfortunately for Penn State and its fans, this wasn’t enough to get the team to its first College Football Playoff, a decision that still upsets fans even now.

Nonetheless, it was a great night to be a Nittany Lion fan, and a feat that James Franklin and Penn State hasn’t repeated in the six-and-a-half years since.


Penn State 24, Ohio State 21, Oct. 22, 2016, Beaver Stadium 

The Wisconsin game was more ceremonial given that it was in the postseason, but that win wouldn’t  have been possible without this one.

We all know what happened. Ohio State comes into Happy Valley ranked second. Penn State’s unranked. Penn State hangs with the Buckeyes for 55+ minutes. Then, Marcus Allen’s arm and Grant Haley’s legs create one of the most memorable moments in Penn State football history and maybe the loudest in Beaver Stadium’s 60+ year run. This was the night Penn State football became nationally respected again, and it’s still Franklin’s only win over Ohio State. Even if Penn State goes 0-for-its-next-100 against the Buckeyes, it will always have the blocked kick, just like Humphrey Bogart will always have Paris.



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