James Franklin finally has himself a win over a ranked opponent.
And what a win it was.
Franklin hadn’t taken down any team with a No. 1 through 25 in front of its name since he arrived at Penn State ahead of the 2014 season. But wins don’t get much bigger — and opponents don’t get much better — than the Nittany Lions’ stunning upset of the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday night in Happy Valley.
Franklin was hired to take Penn State back to the top of the college football mountain, and because college football fans and observers are impatient, he hasn’t appeared to make much progress toward that goal in his two and a half seasons at the helm. The first two campaigns finished in 7-6 records, and that kind of mediocrity doesn’t really fly at Penn State, even if Franklin is still doing the work of dragging the program out of the shadow of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
In the preseason, Franklin looked at this season as one where the effects of that scandal start to get shed a little bit. He boasted about decisions made to redshirt players over the past two seasons, despite the Lions needing the depth, beginning to pay off.
When Penn State lost to Pitt in a game that was very entertaining but saw the Lions’ defense absolutely gashed and then to Michigan by a 39-point margin, it looked like the middle level was all Franklin would be able to deliver for yet another season. Those losses even spurred hot-seat talk. Remember the point about college football fans and observers being impatient?
But Saturday, questions about Franklin’s job status were deemed null and void.
You can look at the way the Lions won the game: returning a blocked field goal attempt 60 yards for a game-winning touchdown in the game’s final five minutes and wonder if this wasn’t more a product of college football magic than it was a product of Penn State turning some kind of corner. But the Lions did play very well, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, on Saturday night. Despite some good yardage totals for Ohio State, Penn State’s defense persistently flustered Heisman candidate J.T. Barrett and sacked him six times, including on the Buckeyes’ final two offensive plays.
Ohio State had huge advantages in most offensive categories. A small sample: Barrett completed 20 more passes than Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, and the Buckeyes were 10-for-24 on third and fourth down while the Lions were just 2-for-14.
But special teams are special for a reason, right? Even before the wild play that ended in the game-winning touchdown, Penn State blocked an Ohio State punt that turned into three points. Ten points off blocked kicks? That’ll do.
Again, does all this mean that the Lions are finding their footing under Franklin and resuming their ascent back to the top of the Big Ten?
The fairer question might be: Was that even possible in the first place?
Taking nothing away from Franklin, he was handed the mighty difficult task of getting back to competing for conference and national championships while playing in a division loaded with some of the best programs in college football. When he arrived ahead of the 2014 season, it was Ohio State and Michigan State slugging it out for those titles on an annual basis. Then Jim Harbaugh showed up in Ann Arbor and flipped the Wolverines back into title contenders overnight.
Whether the Sandusky scandal had a crippling effect on this program or not, the sheer quality of those three annual opponents made Franklin’s task look almost impossible.
But now one of those Goliaths has been slain. Cry not for the Buckeyes, their title hopes are still very much alive after suffering just their first defeat of the season. Instead, look at this as the next step for Franklin, the next step toward where he wants Penn State to be. Look at this as him getting the monkey of not beating a ranked team off his back. You want a win over a ranked team? How’s the No. 2 team in the country sound?
And while the Lions aren't suddenly anyone's trendy pick to make a surprise run to the national championship, take a look at the Big Ten standings. Penn State's 3-1 conference record places it second in the East Division, behind only undefeated Michigan. Of the five teams with 3-1 or better marks in the league, three were ranked in the top 10 coming into this past weekend. Penn State has the same overall record as the Wisconsin Badgers, a top-10 team which still has hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. So pretty good company to be in for the Lions.
Penn State might not be challenging for the conference championship this season or in the next one, but this is one big thing checked off Franklin’s to-do list.