It has been over 250 days since James Franklin led the Penn State Nittany Lions to victory over Boston College in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
In front of a sold out crowd that was essentially a home game for the Nittany Lions, Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was brilliant, going 34-of-50 for 371 yards and four TDs in a 31-30 overtime victory.
After the game Franklin addressed the remaining Penn State fans in the stands yelling, “You want to talk about culture? Look around, this is culture!” The crowd ate it up, exploding in a We Are Penn State chant.
It was an inspiring and powerful statement from the first year head coach, who was brought in to further improve upon the work that Bill O’Brien started the previous two seasons to turn this program around.
For the first time in three years, Penn State football looked like it was going in a positive direction.
Fast-forward to today and that feeling of positivity is all but extinguished.
Penn State fell to the Temple Owls for the first time in 74 years this past Saturday, losing 27-10. After the game the frustration amongst players, coaches and fans was palpable.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, I don’t need to tell you guys that. Its obvious to everybody,” said Franklin to the media after the game.
“We just need to [watch] the film, learn from it and were going to get ready for Buffalo,” a dejected Christian Hackenberg explained to the media after the loss. “I think we all need to look in the mirror and see what we can do better.”
Despite all of the heat that Franklin and Hackenberg will take leading up to Penn State’s home opener against Buffalo, neither deserve as much criticism as the Nittany Lion’s Offensive Coordinator John Donovan.
Donovan lacked creativity in his play calling and failed to make adjustments time and time again throughout Saturdays beat down.
The most glaring example of Donovan’s lack of creativity came at the end of the third quarter. With a 1:28 left, Hackenberg completed a short pass to the right side to Chris Godwin for eight yards. On second down Donovan dialed up the same playcall. This time however, Temple’s Sharif Finch easily recognized the play and picked off Hackenberg’s throw (which was going to the same spot). A play later, Temple scored and took a 17-10 lead, which they never gave up.
Donovan and Hackenberg’s miscues during that sequence were a microcosm of Penn State’s offense since Donovan took over the play calling last season.
In the fourteen games that Donovan has called the plays for Penn State, very little has changed. The wide receivers run short to intermediate routes that often make little sense given the situation and the run game has been non-existent (Don’t get me started on the endless screen passes either).
Don’t mistake this criticism as an angry Penn State fan using his blog to voice his dissatisfaction with how the team is playing. No, these are real concerns that people all over the country are agreeing upon.
And while Donovan been a disaster, James Franklin and the rest of his staff haven’t inspired confidence in their abilities either. Everyone knows how great a recruiter Franklin has been since he arrived at Penn State, but he has continuously failed to make in-game adjustments that ultimately cost his team the game.
Take this past weekend against Temple for example. After dominating the first quarter and taking a 10-0 lead, Temple’s head coach and former Nittany Lion, Matt Rhule, adjusted his defensive game plan. Rhule realized what everyone in the world already knew: Penn State can’t run the ball or protect the Quarterback, so drop everyone into coverage and dare them to move the ball down field. Franklin had no counter adjustment, and the offense fizzled for the rest of the game.
And then there is the offensive line. Christian Hackenberg was sacked 10 times on Saturday. To put that in perspective, he was sacked 44 times all of last season and after one game he is almost a quarter of the way there to surpassing that total.
This was supposed to be a group that would only improve after last season’s catastrophe. Instead, the offensive line took a step back in game one of the 2015 season. Hackenberg was constantly under duress in the pocket and while he is definitely responsible for some of the sacks that he took, he never had enough time in the pocket to allow his receivers to get down field and was sacked over and over again.
And that’s the heart of Penn States problem. They have a pocket passing Quarterback who excels throwing the ball down the field and utilizing his tight ends, and yet he only attempted two deep balls and targeted his tight ends only once.
Many believe that Christian Hackenberg can be the first overall pick in next year’s NFL draft. Unfortunately for him, he is playing in an offensive system that is not conducive to success given his skillset. And unless James Franklin, John Donovan and the offensive line figure it out not only will Hack not be a first round pick, but Penn State will struggle to reach the six win mark necessary to qualify for a bowl game.
After an offseason full of promise, 2015 has started off with more of the same from last year for James Franklin and Penn State. Its not too late for Franklin to make the necessary adjustments to put this team on the winning path, but he better start soon or else it will be more than just Donovan’s job that the fans and former players start calling for.