James Franklin Sees Signs of a Reboot from Penn State

Penn State's James Franklin said his team responded well in two practices following Saturday's loss to Ohio State.
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Before Penn State played Ohio State, ESPN College GameDay host Rece Davis clearly defined the reality facing the Lions.

"If they don't win this game, they're done in terms of the Big Ten championship game, winning the division, the College Football Playoff," Davis said on a media Zoom call. "It's over, and I don't think that's any secret."

Having lost to Ohio State, Penn State now confronts that reality. It's something that coach James Franklin called a reminder of how college football has changed under the playoff system.

"In college football, every season, every game so is meaningful," Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. "And in some ways, where I think the College Football Playoff has made college football even more exciting, it's also created some challenges. It's very all or nothing with the College Football Playoff now."

Penn State is 0-2 for the first time since 2012, to which 2020 can draw some parallels. The Lions played a symbolic season that year, as the NCAA sanctions made them ineligible for postseason play.

Under first-year coach Bill O'Brien, Penn State lost its first two games but then won five straight. The Lions finished 8-4, and O'Brien won several coach-of-the-year awards.

But plenty of differences exist, complicating the question of whether Penn State can rebound. The Lions began this season invested in being a CFP contender but with a tricky Big Ten opening punch of  Indiana and Ohio State that could eliminate it quickly.

Which is what happened.

"Had that two-point conversion [against Indiana] been ruled differently, we would be having a different conversation right now about their aspirations and whether they could survive a loss and still get in [to the playoff]," Davis said Friday before the Ohio State game.

After the loss, Penn State's odds to win the playoff fell from 66-1 to 150-1, according to the site betonline.ag. Penn State shares the same odds with Indiana, Michigan State, Oklahoma State and Coastal Carolina.

That's part of Franklin's lament about perception. What do the Lions play for now, with championship contention all but neutralized? Quarterback Sean Clifford tried to answer that question Saturday night.

"If you're not motivated right now, then I don't really want you on the team," he said. "That's just a fact. If you're not motivated off two losses when you're back is against the wall, if you're somebody who is just going to fold and say, 'Alright, we're going to get them next year,' then I don't want you here.'"

Franklin said that several players spoke up in the locker room after the game and carried that approach into Sunday. Penn State adjusted its schedule, practicing Monday because teams were off Tuesday for Election Day, and Franklin saw hints of a response.

"I thought on Sunday, in meetings and out in practice, that our body language and demeanor and our lack of defensiveness, all of us, was really good," Franklin said. "And that led us to have a good practice on Sunday and then I thought a good practice [Monday]."

Penn State hosts Maryland on Saturday, a team it has owned at Beaver Stadium. The Lions are 23-1 at home against the Terps, though that one loss did occur under Franklin in 2014.

So now, Franklin walks the delicate path between correcting and being counterproductive. Penn State hasn't lost three games in a row since the end of the 2015 season, which it capped with a disappointing four-game streak.

So Franklin saved the critical eye for Sunday.

"I've learned over my 10 years as a head coach that the last thing you want to do after a loss is start making corrections in the locker room," he said. "It's just too raw at that moment. You tell them you love them, you tell them you appreciate them, that we're all in this together and we've got to stick together during challenging times."

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