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James Franklin Will Make $6 Million This Year. Time to Earn it

Penn State was ranked No. 4 with a nine-game win streak in early October. Now the season sits on the edge of unraveling.

Penn State arrived at a pivotal intersection of the 2021 season following Saturday's baffling nine-overtime loss to Illinois. Scheduled to play three top-10 teams in their last five games, the Lions, ranked fourth in the nation Oct. 9, now could be staring down the barrel of a 7-5 season. Or worse.

How did they get here, and where do they go from here? Thoughts on that from a 20-18 loss to the Illini.

James Franklin enters a critical coaching stretch

On occasion, Penn State coach James Franklin has reminded fans that he heard some of them chanting "Fire Franklin!" during the 2016 game against Minnesota. That became fuel for Franklin's run to winning Big Ten Coach of the Year honors. The coach needs more fuel.

Franklin could explain 2020's 0-5 start as the product of a COVID season. And his ensuing nine-game win streak delivered some amnesty.

Then Penn State lost two captains (quarterback Sean Clifford and defensive tackle PJ Mustipher) in the span of two quarters at Iowa, and the Lions withered. Franklin and his staff could not weather those critical departures in losses to Iowa and Illinois.

As they head to Ohio State, which has averaged 58.8 points in its last four games, the Lions (5-2) need to find ways to score points. The offense has produced one touchdown in 23 possessions since Clifford ran for a score against Iowa.

Penn State isn't the No. 4 team in the country. Yet it's also not as dysfunctional as its last six quarters (and nine overtimes) suggest. Franklin rallied Penn State (albeit with Trace McSorley, Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin and Pat Freermuth) from a crossroads in 2016. This week marks another turning point of his career.

According to his contract, Franklin is scheduled to make $6 million this year, which doesn't include a $1 million life insurance loan or incentives but does include a $500,000 retention bonus — if he's still the head coach Dec. 31. Time to earn it.

Penn State coach James Franklin during his pregame walk through Beaver Stadium on Saturday as the Lions readied to play Illinois. (Rich Barnes/USA Today Sports)

Penn State coach James Franklin during his pregame walk through Beaver Stadium on Saturday as the Lions readied to play Illinois. (Rich Barnes/USA Today Sports)

Hindsight: Should Sean Clifford have started vs. Illinois?

Penn State's season always has hinged on Clifford's health. However, the coaching staff's decision to play an obviously limited quarterback against Illinois merits further review.

Clifford, who returned from the injury he sustained at Iowa, did not attempt a designed run, a central component of his game. The quarterback essentially had one carry for a 2-yard loss. (His other four credited rush plays were sacks.)

On the scramble, Clifford slid behind the line of scrimmage to avoid contact. It was a rare guarded moment for Clifford, who never shies from being hit. But he clearly was protecting himself by design.

"Obviously, it's a big part of his game that he didn't have today," Franklin said.

In addition, Clifford didn't have a reliable deep ball. The quarterback was 1 for 6 on passes of 15 yards or longer, according to Sports Info Solutions. And that completion was the 36-yard fly ball he hung to Jahan Dotson, who willed himself to the catch.

Yet Franklin said that Clifford started because, "We felt like Sean gave us the best opportunity." Which offers quite the silent commentary on Penn State's quarterback room.

Ta'Quan Roberson and Christian Veilleux were highly recruited high school players. Roberson was a four-star prospect in New Jersey who received an offer from Ohio State after he committed to the Lions. Veilleux's offer sheet included Clemson, LSU and Kentucky.

We've addressed Penn State's transfer-portal issue before. But Franklin should address why he still doesn't feel comfortable building an emergency start around a third-year quarterback, and what that says about his ability to develop quarterbacks. Incoming quarterbacks Drew Allar and Beau Pribula might be curious about that as well.

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The offensive line 'just really hasn't come together'

Former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who knows about playing behind shaky offensive lines, called out the current unit on his Field of 12 podcast.

"The offensive line has done a very, very poor job being violent at the line of scrimmage," Hackenberg said on the podcast. "And for the amount of time that coach Franklin has had up there to get some guys in there with a little s--- to them and some want-to to dominate the line of scrimmage, it just really hasn't come together."

Penn State rushed for 62 yards against Illinois. It hasn't had a 100-yard rusher in its last 10 games. It hasn't topped 200 yards rushing as a team this season. Four opponents have held Penn State under 70 yards rushing.

The Lions did not rush for a first down against Illinois, had minus-1 yards rushing on three third-down carries and were stopped twice on conversion attempts in overtime. One play illustrated Hackenber's observation.

In the second overtime period, Penn State ran a snap from the 1980s: Clifford under center, Noah Cain in the 'I' formation behind 250-pound tight end Brenton Strange aligned at fullback. The play went for no gain.

The offensive line isn't solely responsible for the run game but plays a central role. And Penn State's run game has been disconcerting this season. In his eighth year, with his fifth offensive coordinator and third line coach, Franklin still doesn't have an offensive line that dominates. The issue is beyond chronic at this point.

The weather didn't bother Illinois

Something Franklin said after the game struck a chord. The coach shouldered blame on his staff's behalf ("Obviously, we did not have our guys ready to play today") but also cited mitigating factors.

"I think the combination of guys that did not practice [because of injuries], a combination of a wet day, the threat of the pass not being there, a limited Sean, all of it factored in," Franklin said. "You can't go from heavy pass to heavy run in one week. You got to be able to be mixed and be balanced, and we weren't able to do that."

Illinois coach Bret Bielema, meanwhile, devised an offensive gameplan around quarterback Artur Sitkowski's 51.2 completion rate. And the Illini rushed for 357 yards, the most against Penn State since Ohio State (408) in 2013.

Some astonishing numbers

Penn State is 2-2 outright the past two seasons in games when favored by 20+ points (including 2020's loss to Maryland). Prior to 2020, the Lions had won 26 consecutive games when favored b 20+ dating to 2009.

Penn State won the turnover battle 3-0. According to College Football Reference, the Lions had won 11 of their last 12 games with such a margin. 

Illinois had 13 rushing plays of 10+ yards. Prior to Saturday, Penn State had allowed 21 such plays through six games.

Illinois sacked Clifford four times, all on third down.

Illinois threw for 38 yards and had 0 yards after catch.

Penn State dropped two more potential interceptions, including one in overtime, bringing its season total to seven.

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Illinois stuns Penn State in college football's first nine-overtime game

Could Penn State have looked deeper for a transfer quarterback?