Turning the corner? Penn State's upset of Ohio State proves what can happen when it pulls together; Punt, Pass & Pork
Back when James Franklin coached at Vanderbilt, nothing made him prouder than when he visited high schools while recruiting and the coaches noted how hard Franklin's Commodores played. It wasn't a pat-on-the-head, well-you-tried kind of compliment. It was more along the lines of "So that's how you win nine games in a season at Vanderbilt."
Franklin has seen glimpses of that mentality in his Penn State teams, but for most of his first two seasons the Nittany Lions were so overwhelmed by other issues that they couldn't duplicate that tenacity. When he arrived in 2014, NCAA sanctions had left them without the bodies they needed to practice the way they wanted. In his second year, the roster remained too thin to risk injuries in already shaky position groups.
This spring and in preseason camp, the Nittany Lions finally had the numbers to practice the way those Commodores did. That tenacity began to appear more consistently. Saturday, in front of 107,000 clad in white, the Nittany Lions finally took that fight to a superior group of athletes even after most would have quit. After falling on a botched punt snap in the end zone for a safety that put Penn State down 14 in the third quarter, the Nittany Lions should have been done.
Instead, they blocked a punt, blocked a field goal and buried Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett beneath an avalanche of pressure. When all those fans began pouring on the field, the scoreboard read Penn State 24, Ohio State 21. "This program and these kids have been through so much," Franklin told Campus Rush on Sunday. "To have a night like that where it all comes to life and all comes to fruition is just awesome."
BAUMGAERTNER: Three thoughts on Penn State's win over Ohio State
Franklin got home at 2:30 Sunday morning. He fell asleep around 3:30. When he awoke, a new day had dawned literally and figuratively. Can Penn State ever return to its former gridiron glory even after the Jerry Sandusky scandal and all the baggage that came with it? Yes, it can. Can Franklin sell results instead of dreams? Now he can.
Franklin met with his defensive staff Sunday morning and reviewed a dominant performance by the line and linebackers, who sacked Barrett six times. The second-ranked Buckeyes, who had buzzsawed their opponents until an overtime scare at Wisconsin a week earlier, looked helpless trying to block Penn State's rushers.
After that meeting, Franklin returned home for brunch. A celebratory Eggs Benedict for the coach who toppled the Buckeyes? No. This was a recruiting brunch. The Nittany Lions had hosted some of their most important targets Saturday in the hopes that the White Out would leave them impressed with Penn State's gameday atmosphere. They probably also left impressed with the result.
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
This win was huge for Franklin and his staff in two ways. First, it should help a community still fractured by the horror of Sandusky's crimes and the anger in some quarters over Joe Paterno's firing to finally come back together in support of the program. A loud minority has struggled to come to grips with Penn State's new reality, and that has made Franklin's job much harder than it needed to be. Franklin has emphasized the necessity to pull in the same direction, and Saturday, it felt as if everyone was. "You don't beat the No. 2 team in the country without the AD, without the president, without the lettermen, without 107,000 people in the stands, without the players, without the assistant coaches," Franklin said. "That's what made Penn State special for so long. It was an entire community, an entire campus, an entire alumni base all pulling together to have one of the more special communities in all of college football."
The other way Saturday helped Franklin is it finally gave him the signature win his résumé lacked. He went 9–4 at Vanderbilt in 2012 and 2013, and even though that's the college football equivalent of riding a unicorn, Franklin didn't get as much credit. Tennessee was historically down both those years. Florida and Georgia were down in '13. The Commodores beat Auburn in '12, but that was the year the Tigers went 0–8 in the SEC and fired Gene Chizik.
Franklin's detractors in the business—and there are quite a few—painted him as the salesman of a football pyramid scheme of sorts. He would recruit more players, they said, but the promised big wins would never materialize. No one can say that after Saturday. Especially once they understand how far the Nittany Lions have come since 2014.
The NCAA bypassed its usual enforcement procedure to levy historically harsh sanctions on Penn State in 2012. Those sanctions, designed to cripple the program in the wake of the Sandusky scandal, included the loss of 20 scholarships a year for four years and stricter limits on how many players the Nittany Lions could sign. Also, any player who wanted to leave was free to transfer without penalty. Franklin's staff had to deal with the sanctions as they signed their first recruiting class and began working on their second. In September 2014, after the NCAA was embarrassed in court, the organization rescinded the sanctions. Casual fans who don't understand how recruiting works might have expected everything to get better, but the coaches knew it still might take years.
When Franklin and company arrived, Penn State had one total scholarship offensive tackle in the sophomore, junior and senior classes. The Nittany Lions had nine total scholarship offensive linemen. (Most programs carry 15 or 16.) The two previous recruiting classes had been ranked No. 49 and No. 46 by Scout.com. This isn't meant to insult previous coach Bill O'Brien's recruiting ability; no one could have convinced a full class of top recruits to come to Penn State with all that turmoil. Given these numbers, Temple racking up 10 sacks in a 2015 win against the Nittany Lions makes a lot more sense.
When this staff arrived, the only position group that had decent depth was the defensive line. So the coaches moved two players to offensive line. One of those, current senior Brian Gaia, is the Nittany Lions' current starting center.
Franklin decided when he arrived at Penn State that he would redshirt players who weren't ready to play even though this could leave the program thin at multiple positions. There were plenty of times the past two years when Franklin had second thoughts. "The problem is the way our profession has changed. Guys aren't getting the years to get programs right and turned around. There were a couple of times when I started questioning if this was the right thing to do," Franklin said. "But ultimately I said we were going to stick with the plan because it's the right thing to do for Penn State and the right thing to do for the kids."
Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire
That is why Penn State now has a 270-pound defensive tackle named Kevin Givens. Oh, Penn State would have had someone named Kevin Givens right now even if Givens hadn't redshirted as a freshman in 2015, but he might be a completely different player. Givens came to Penn State from Altoona as a 230-pound outside linebacker/defensive end who had also played tailback in high school. Had Givens been tossed in at one of those positions instead of being given time to bulk up and learn his new position, the Nittany Lions might have had a decent player, but they might not have one of the nation's best young three techniques. Meanwhile, Penn State is up to 17 scholarship offensive lineman. "We look like a Big Ten line now," Franklin said.
Franklin also appreciates the fact that athletic director Sandy Barbour and president Eric Barron had his back through the growing pains. After Penn State got hammered 49–10 by Michigan, the people who didn't understand how big a reclamation project this was began grumbling again. Barbour made it clear in multiple interviews in recent weeks that Franklin would be Penn State's coach moving forward. This wasn't one of those kiss-of-death votes of confidence. This one meant something. "The interesting thing is internally I never felt [pressure]," Franklin said. "I never felt it from our president. I never felt it from our AD. I never felt that from our boosters. But there was always this grumbling from media and other areas. The problem is it's out there, and it hurts you in recruiting and hurts you with your team."
WEEK 8 TAKEAWAYS: Biggest things we learned on Saturday
Now the Nittany Lions find themselves in a completely different situation than when they awoke Saturday morning. They're 5–2 and 3–1 in the Big Ten, and the remaining schedule (at Purdue, home against Iowa, at Indiana, at Rutgers and Michigan State at home) isn't the world's toughest. While this is a young team and consistency certainly is not a given, Penn State is capable of winning every remaining game on the schedule. And what a scenario that would create.
If Penn State won out and Ohio State and Michigan won out until they faced one another, the winner of the Michigan-Ohio State game would go to the Big Ten title game because the next-to-last Big Ten tiebreaker (overall record) would knock out Penn State by virtue of its loss to Pittsburgh. But if Michigan were to lose beforehand, then an Ohio State win against the Wolverines in that scenario would put Penn State in Indianapolis. So by beating the Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions have made Ohio State root for Michigan. (Isn't college football wonderful?)
Franklin will not worry about any of these scenarios, of course. He's got to keep his team tethered to the earth at a moment when the Nittany Lions' heads could swell up and float away. If they need material, the coaches can point to the fact that other than special teams and in the matchup between Penn State's defensive line and the Buckeyes' offensive line, Ohio State still dominated the game. So the Nittany Lions shouldn't assume that beating Ohio State means they'll beat Purdue. But they should understand now what can happen when everyone is pulling in the same direction. "That happened last night," Franklin said. "I think it was just a glimpse of what we can continue to do."
A random ranking
While I realize I usually focus on protein in the "What's Andy eating?" section of this column, I don't want to be miscast as one of those cavemen who refuses to eat vegetables. I love veggies. They're delicious. I eat them every day. So today, I'll take David Beck's suggestion and rank the best vegetables*.
*This ranking assumes a fairly basic preparation (salt, pepper, maybe a little butter). So there will be no casseroles. And obviously everything is better with bacon or fatback, but we're just judging the veggies here.
2. Greens (collard or turnip)
3. Brussels sprouts
4. Green beans
5. Black-eyed peas
6. Sweet potatoes (baked)
Projected College Football Playoff bracket
The Crimson Tide whipped previously undefeated Texas A&M 33–14. Alabama scored its 12th non-offensive touchdown of the season in the process on a Jonathan Allen fumble return. That's an incredible number, and the defense's ability to score gives Alabama another way to fuel opponents' nightmares. Unfortunately, the Tide lost safety/punt returner Eddie Jackson for the season with a broken leg. Jackson is a critical cog in the defense, and his playmaking ability will be missed. Hootie Jones likely will replace Jackson at safety. Alabama has a week off before facing an LSU team that has opened up its offense since firing Les Miles.
The Wolverines pounded Illinois as expected, and Michigan's 49–10 win against Penn State on Sept. 24 looks even more impressive in light of the Nittany Lions' win against Ohio State on Saturday. Michigan is the only team left in the Big Ten East that absolutely controls its destiny, and the Wolverines play at Michigan State (Saturday), at home against Maryland, at Iowa and at home against Indiana before facing the Buckeyes in Columbus on Nov. 26. Michigan should win everything between now and The Game, but everybody thought the Ohio State would crush Penn State, too.
The Huskies rank first in the nation in offensive points per drive (3.88) and third in the nation in points allowed per offensive drive (0.96). That equals absolute domination. Here's the only problem: While Washington's schedule so far would have looked impressive in past years—blowout wins against Stanford and Oregon, hooray!—the teams the Huskies have played in 2016 range from mediocre to terrible. That changes this week when Washington faces Utah in Salt Lake City. If the Huskies want to stay here, they'll have to rise to the challenge.
We still haven't seen the Tigers play a complete game on offense this season. Will that happen at Florida State after an open date to prepare for a rival that should be susceptible to deep shots? Or will Clemson continue to underachieve despite overwhelming talent? If the offense finally clicks, the Tigers would instantly become the toughest matchup for Alabama down the road. The Crimson Tide's offensive line struggled at times with Texas A&M's excellent defensive line, and Clemson's D-line might be better and has been the team's most consistent position group. If Clemson can add a fully operational Deshaun Watson-Wayne Gallman-Mike Williams Death Star on the other side of the ball, the Tigers can beat anyone. If they continue to underachieve on offense, they can be beaten by almost anyone.
Big Uglies of the Week
It may seem like a copout that I regularly give this honor to more than one player, but line play is so teamwork-oriented that it's sometimes impossible to single out one great performance. This week's award goes to yet another group. Penn State's defensive line absolutely dominated Ohio State's offensive line, making J.T. Barrett's life positively miserable most of the night.
The destruction reached a crescendo on Ohio State's final offensive play. Facing fourth-and-23, the Buckeyes had to throw deep. Penn State coordinator Brent Pry, who had masterfully mixed fronts and blitzes all night, dropped his back seven and relied on his front four to get to Barrett. Defensive ends Garrett Sickles and Evan Schwan each beat the Buckeyes' tackles one-on-one, running the arc while maintaining their lanes to cut off any east-west escape route for Barrett.
Meanwhile, Ohio State right guard Billy Price initially did a decent job blocking redshirt freshman defensive tackle/carnival strongman Kevin Givens. But Givens eventually overpowered Price, shed him and cut off Barrett as Barrett tried to step up in the pocket. Givens, Sickles and Schwan converged on Barrett, sacking him and sealing the biggest win of the James Franklin era at Penn State.
1. Reporters trailed Texas athletic director Mike Perrin after the Longhorns' 24–21 loss at Kansas State. Perrin, who said some things he then walked back after Texas lost at Oklahoma State, made sure he didn't have to backpedal Saturday. "No talking," Perrin said after a game that didn't feel nearly as close as the final score. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder offered embattled Longhorns coach Charlie Strong some encouragement after the loss, but Strong's 14–18 record at Texas isn't encouraging.
The Longhorns face undefeated Baylor on Saturday in Austin. Texas closed last season with a win against a Bears team ravaged by injuries, but this one will come in mostly healthy. The best Texas can do now is 8–4, but if the Longhorns continue to play the way they did Saturday against Kansas State, another 5–7 year is a realistic possibility.
2. The line to throw money at Houston coach Tom Herman probably will still be fairly long after this season, but the Cougars are not playing up to expectations. There was nothing fluky about the way SMU whipped Houston on Saturday. The Mustangs' 38–16 win was the biggest of the Chad Morris era, and it offered a reminder that Herman isn't the only mid-major coach in Texas who might be destined for bigger things.
Morris, who was coaching Austin's Lake Travis High when he was hired in 2010 to be Tulsa's offensive coordinator, laid the foundation for Clemson's current offense in four seasons as coordinator. In 2015, he inherited an SMU roster that June Jones had let wither on the vine. The Mustangs went 2–10, but Morris spent much of the season trying to teach his team how to compete again. SMU remains a work in progress, but Saturday's win offers tangible proof that Morris and his Pony Uptempo scheme are on the right track.
3. Here are the five most amazing stats from Oklahoma's 66–59 win against Texas Tech:
- The teams combined for 1,708 yards.
- Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes completed 52 of 88 passes for 734 yards (tying an NCAA record) with five touchdowns—and lost.
- Oklahoma averaged 11.2 yards a play.
- The teams combined to throw 124 passes, and only one was intercepted.
- Texas Tech converted on 20 of 25 third downs and two of two fourth-down attempts—and lost.
4. Meanwhile, West Virginia continues to be the lone up-tempo team in the Big 12 capable of playing consistent defense. A week after holding Texas Tech to 17 points in Lubbock, the undefeated Mountaineers cruised to a 34–10 win against TCU. The Horned Frogs went scoreless in the second half on only five possessions. TCU entered Saturday averaging 40.1 points a game.
5. Arizona State coach Todd Graham did not appreciate Washington State's Mike Leach accusing the Sun Devils last week of using some sort of electronic means to steal opponents' signals. (Deciphering signs with the naked eye is perfectly legal; using video or some other recording device is not.) So after the Cougars' 37–32 win in Tempe, Graham let Leach know how he felt. Needless to say, some four-letter words were involved. If that sort of thing offends you, don't click here.
6. Since only quarterbacks and tailbacks have won the Heisman Trophy since 1997, there is a strong probability that at some point in each winner's Heisman season, a camera will catch him carrying the ball while throwing a stiffarm—just as NYU's Ed Smith did before he was immortalized in bronze. Here's Derrick Henry last year against LSU. Here's Marcus Mariota in 2014 against Arizona.
Saturday, photographer Jamie Rhodes captured Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson striking the pose during the Cardinals' 54–13 pasting of NC State. Jackson still has to fend off the other contenders, but he's on track. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 355 yards and three touchdowns Saturday. He also carried 17 times for 76 yards and a touchdown.
7. Speaking of October Heisman favorites, LSU's Leonard Fournette held that title last year before a terrible night in Tuscaloosa effectively ended his candidacy. This year, Fournette has struggled with an ankle injured in preseason camp. Saturday against Ole Miss, Fournette returned after a two-game absence and destroyed the Rebels' defense with an LSU-record 284 yards and three touchdowns on only 16 carries in the Tigers' 38–21 win. Fournette also caught three passes for 25 yards. Even though he ripped off touchdown runs of 78, 76 and 59 yards, his most impressive play might have come when he lined up as a fullback, drifted into the flat, caught a Danny Etling pass and smashed Ole Miss freshman Deontay Anderson before going down.
8. Colorado kept pace in the race for the Pac-12 South title with a 10–5 win at Stanford on Saturday. Afterward, coach Mike MacIntyre kept his promise to an obviously hungry team.
9. South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley graduated from Opelika (Ala.) High a year early—not a semester; a full year— to join the Gamecocks, which made him a prime redshirt candidate. Saturday, the Gamecocks yanked Bentley's redshirt and started him in a 34–28 win against UMass. Bentley, the son of South Carolina assistant Bobby Bentley, completed 17 of 26 passes for 201 yards with two touchdowns.
Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp explained that the progress Bentley showed during the team's Sunday night scrimmages for younger players gave Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper confidence that Bentley might be able to help jump-start South Carolina's anemic offense. Muschamp also explained the conversations that lead to a redshirt getting pulled. "With the deficiencies we have, is it something we can correct right now?" Muschamp said. "Or is it something we have to make the best of until we get to recruiting season? … At the end of the day, he had progressed quite well. So you have a conversation with him and his family to say 'This is where we are. This is what we're thinking. Where are you with this?' And they wanted to play."
Next week, Bentley will get his introduction to SEC play when Tennessee visits Williams-Brice Stadium.
10. Connecticut coach Bob Diaco, noticing a lack of natural rivals for the Huskies after their former Big East colleagues in the region decamped to the ACC, made up a rivalry with Central Florida last year and called it the Civil ConFliCT. The Knights, who have an actual rival west on Interstate 4 in South Florida, care not for this manufactured rivalry. How little do they care? They left the trophy at UConn after Saturday's 24–16 win.
What's eating Andy?
The Cubs and the Indians are playing in the World Series. I don't normally believe doomsday prophecies, but I believe every word of this one. It's been nice knowing all of you.
What's Andy eating?
After two solid weeks on the road, I spent the past week at home. So while I did plenty of research for my vegetable rankings, I didn't eat any of the goodies that I usually write about in this space. So we'll reach back into the vault that is my old Heaven Is A Buffet food blog for a review of an exquisite Chicago barbecue joint. This originally appeared on June 13, 2012.
Unwritten rules permeate barbecue culture like post oak smoke permeates a hunk of brisket. Don't drown the meat in sauce. Use spare ribs instead of babybacks. Never sacrifice attention to the meat for attention to side dishes. Everyone seems to know these rules, but they rarely get codified. The proprietors of Smoque have done just that, issuing a manifesto that records some of these rules while also explaining to Midwesterners unfamiliar with real barbecue exactly why following those rules produces such delicious results.
So does Smoque practice what it preaches? On a breezy night, I loaded down a platter for a test.
They try to breathe new life into dry, tasteless meat by dousing it with an overpowering BBQ sauce—a shameful practice that we like to call artificial resaucitation. … Well, we won't do it. No sir. – Smoque on sauce
I might have to borrow "artificial resaucitation" to use later. That's a fine way of describing a despicable practice. Smoque serves its ribs sauceless, and the brisket has only a light coating. Servers provide extra sauce in plastic cups so diners can choose the proper of amount of the tomato-based mix with a vinegar kick. The pulled pork was a little too drenched for my tastes, so the pitmasters may want to dial back the sauce in that particular discipline. I prefer to choose my own sauce adventure, and if the meat is cooked as well as it is at Smoque, I might elect to forge ahead without accouterment.
In much of Chicago, we realize, it's all about baby backs. But in almost every one of America's BBQ towns, spare ribs rule. – Smoque on the great rib debate
This told me all I needed to know when I had to choose between Smoque's spare ribs and babybacks. I read it this way: We understand people in Chicago like baby backs, but baby backs are a lousy barbecue cut because they lack the fat required for a long smoke. So order the spare ribs.
Smoque uses spare ribs trimmed St. Louis-style for dainty diners afraid of eating around a little knuckle. The sweet and savory rub doesn't overpower the meat, but it marries with the pork so well that, without sauce, Smoque ribs wouldn't seem the least bit out of place in Memphis. Smoque correctly eschews fall-off-the-bone for the gentle-tug texture.
OK, we admit it. It wasn't that long ago that we didn't really get brisket. Every brisket we tried was dry, tough, or tasteless—often all three. But in Texas, brisket is the stuff of legend. So for the sake of completeness, and so as not to anger a very large Texan friend of ours, we sent an expedition down to Austin's BBQ belt to see what the big deal was. – Smoque on brisket
The proprietors of Smoque must have found some sort of brisket Holy Grail in Austin—maybe at Franklin Barbecue?—because they get brisket now. The brisket was by far the best of the three meats on my plate. In Texas, the portion I was served would have been called "lean" brisket. The lean typically is drier and packs less flavor than the fatty section. But the brisket I had at Smoque was every bit as juicy and rich as a fatty portion—without the fat. (Probably because it had completely rendered into the meat during cooking. Every pitmaster aspires to do this, but it's especially difficult with brisket.)
If you aren't as carnivorous as me and only plan on ordering only one meat at Smoque, make it the brisket.
One thing that always puzzled us about BBQ restaurants: the sides. Side dishes should complement good BBQ and set it off by means of contrast. But more often than not, they seem like an afterthought. Not here. – Smoque on sides
I'm glad someone else noticed this. Some of the most legendary barbecue spots have terrible sides. A place with a two-hour line for brisket will glop a pile of bland baked beans next to the meat and call it a meal. While the sides should never detract from the meat, they should require a little effort. If not, why serve them at all?
I'm not a fan of Smoque's saucy take on macaroni and cheese. I prefer my mac and cheese to be near solid because I'm weird, and my nostalgia for the way the Key Largo Winn Dixie deli at Mile Marker 100 made mac and cheese during my elementary school years continues to inform my tastes despite my best efforts to be open minded. That said, I appreciated the effort. It's obvious great care goes into the mac and cheese at Smoque, and if a little runny is your preferred style, you'll be in heaven. The brisket chili, meanwhile, deserves to be an entrée. The thick mixture of brisket and peppers explodes on the palate, and it blows away anything in the baked beans-cole slaw-potato salad triumvirate that infests the menu at most joints.
Between the brisket and the brisket chili, it's quite clear the folks at Smoque can back up their manifesto bravado. The fact that they pull it off so far above the Mason-Dixon line is even more impressive. Most Chicagoans may not have much basis for comparison, but they're lucky to have a joint that would clean up in any of America's barbecue capitals.