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Smeltzer: Extraordinary Circumstances, Typical Result for James Franklin, Penn State

James Franklin looks on after Indiana strikes on a 90 yard score in the first quarter.

Saturday was the most anticipated Penn State-Michigan game of all time, and only part of it was because both teams came into the day ranked in the top 10.

All anybody seemed to be talked about before the game was Michigan HC Jim Harbaugh and whether or not he would be allowed to coach.

For those who have been living under a rock, I’ll keep it brief: Harbaugh got suspended for Michigan’s last three regular-season games, tried to fight it so he could coach against Penn State, and lost that battle.

Harbaugh’s 5-3 against Penn State HC James Franklin and had won his last two matchups. So some believed this was a sign (no pun intended) that things were about to turn around for Penn State. Maybe Harbaugh’s absence would have a significant impact on the way Michigan operated? Maybe a season filled with distractions would finally catch up to Michigan?

Maybe Penn State’s offense would score more than six points in the second half?

Instead, a wild story had the same ending: PSU played a national championship contender and lost.

To clear things up, I’ll never be a #FireFranklin type of person.

I believe Franklin is a good coach.

He took over a program still recovering from sanctions and turned it into one where going 11-2 feels like a disappointment.

But even people who are good at their jobs deserve criticism, and Franklin’s no exception. As with anything, there are extremes to this. More than a few Penn State fans have been calling for Franklin’s head for years, and I think they’re off base. On the opposite end, there are fans who are overly defensive of Franklin. Some of it is due to apathy.

I think there are people who feel Penn State can never win a national title under Franklin or anybody else, and that’s just the way it is regardless of who’s the coach.

To them, Ohio State (9-1 against Franklin) and Michigan (7-3) are a level above Penn State and that’s just how it’s going to be. So when losses like Saturday’s happen, these people aren’t enraged the way many are. Penn State’s shortcomings are just something they accept.

I also believe are also people out there who are upset by Penn State’s shortcomings but will blame anybody but Franklin, the coaching staff or the players.

To them, Penn State can’t beat Ohio State and Michigan because of NIL. Because of the University not buying in. Because Jay Paterno is on the board of trustees. Because of anything and everything… except the coaches who draw up the game plans and the players who have to execute those plans.

I think these are the people who are the most defensive when it comes to Franklin.

These are the people who would tell anybody who says anything negative about Franklin that 10-2 is about the best Penn State can do and that they should just shut up and be happy with it.

I don’t believe 10-2 is the best Penn State can do.

To be fair, Something that I everybody should understand about Penn State and Franklin is that these big game  failures have been a problem since long before the “Big Game James” took over. Joe Paterno, the guy some still compare Franklin to and constantly say he falls short of, went a combined 11-27 against Michigan and Ohio State. So it’s not as if Penn State had a reputation for winning these types of games. That’s important to know when evaluating Franklin’s body of work.

But both of Penn State’s losses this season are prime examples that this team is capable of beating the Michigans and Ohio States of the world.

It just hasn’t happened.

Even though the outside noise was much louder for the Michigan game than for Ohio State three weeks prior, Penn State lost for the same reason: The offense didn’t do the defense justice.

Michigan and Ohio State are better than Penn State, but I’ve seen little evidence that either team is significantly more talented. Penn State’s defense is as good as anybody’s, and the offense is led by a five-star quarterback. The defense has shown up when it’s mattered most this season. Drew Allar hasn’t.

Some will attribute Allar’s big game performances to him not cutting the mustard. Others will put it on offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich. But the fact that Allar was a five-star coming out of high school and is Penn State’s quarterback is proof that landing quality talent isn’t the problem at Penn State. I feel that cuts through a lot of the “10-2 is the best we can do” narrative.

Penn State went 3-1 against Michigan between 2017 and ‘20. In ‘21, a Penn State team that went 7-6 led Michigan, the eventual Big Ten champ and College Football Playoff participant, with less than four minutes to go. But Saturday was evidence that, even amid unprecedented circumstances, Michigan has lapped Penn State.

James Franklin’s a good football coach, and PSU fans should want him to be coaching their team.

But they should also expect better than 4-16 against the two Big Ten opponents that matter most.

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