Why a road trip to Indiana is one of James Franklin’s biggest challenges yet at Penn State

James Franklin

After losing two straight games at home in agonizing fashion, Penn State looks to rebound this week on the road against Indiana. All things considered, this week looks like a good opportunity to get things back on track for the Nittany Lions, but this may be one of the more important challenges James Franklin has had as a head coach at Penn State yet.

Three weeks ago when Penn State lost a tough one at home to Ohio State by one point, a second straight year losing to the Buckeyes by one point despite holding a lead in the fourth quarter, James Franklin made it clear he was setting the bar higher for the Nittany Lions. No longer would Penn State accept simply being a very good or great team, because he feels the program is ready to make the jump to being thought of in the same category as Ohio State or Clemson as a playoff contender.

“The reality is that we have gone from an average football team to a good football team to a great football team,” Franklin said moments after the loss to Ohio State. “We have worked hard to do those things, but we are not an elite football team yet. As hard as we have worked to go from average to good, and from good to great – the work that it’s going to take to get to an elite program, it’s going to be just as hard as the ground and the distance that we have already traveled.”

After vehemently raising the bar of success for his program after a loss, and with the benefit of a bye week to focus on correcting those little things that separate a program from reaching that next step on the college football ladder, Penn State played a clunker at home against Michigan State. In eerily similar fashion to last season, Penn State had failed to finish off Ohio State and Michigan State in the fourth quarter of back-to-back games on the schedule and let a win slip away in the fourth quarter. Failing to win a game after proclaiming it was time for his program to take the next step to being elite, Franklin once again stressed the importance of taking care of the little things throughout the program in order for Penn State to be something more than a very good or great team.

“I’d rather be in situations, although they are painful, I’d rather be in a situation where you’ve lost five games by 12 points than other places that are trying to figure out how to not lose games by larger margins,” Franklin said after Penn State lost to Michigan State on Saturday.  “Our margin of error is small, our margin of defeat is small and we’ve got to get all those little things corrected.”

So, where does Penn State go from here?

This is the key question this week. How Penn state comes out on Saturday in Bloomington could tell exactly where this program is heading next, with a huge three-game stretch to follow this weekend’s road trip. That is what makes this a critical game form a coaching standpoint not just for this week, but potentially for the remainder of the season and beyond.

Franklin and his coaching staff know now they have some issues to sort through that have been popping up this season. Slow starts on offense and an inability to tackle and make a big stop late in the game have been the most glaring of issues. After losing two games to eliminate Penn State from playoff consideration and, unless a bizarre sequence of events still unfolds, any opportunity of playing for a Big Ten championship removed from the outlook of the 2018 season, it is fair to wonder what kind of fight Penn State comes out showing for a road game at Indiana.

This is the quintessential trap game for Penn State for three classic reasons:

  • Penn State is coming off tough back-to-back losses at home.
  • Indiana is 4-3; dangerous enough at home to be a team you don’t want hanging around.
  • Penn State’s next three games are against opponents currently ranked

It’s a rather cliché thing to say, but Penn State simply has to be mentally prepared to turn the page and take care of business on the road. Putting behind them two straight losses needs to be followed up by a good, confident start on offense and defense with no self-inflicted wounds in the form of turnovers lost or bad penalties giving the Hoosiers a free first down. For Franklin and the coaches and players who have been pointing out how the little things need to be improved, this is the game where those words have to be backed up on the field. Do that, and build a comfortable lead and don’t let up and the signs of a program ready to bounce back and move toward being elite will show.

Fail to do that, however, and Penn State could soon find themselves even farther away from their ultimate goal as a program even if they do get out of Bloomington with a win. The next three games after Indiana are not easy; home against Iowa, at Michigan, home against Wisconsin. Elite programs, and those attempting to be elite, don’t let a road trip to Indiana get in the way or cause trouble.

Go back to what Franklin said about all of the work that has been done to get Penn State in position to be a program that can go to the Rose Bowl as Big Ten champion and the Fiesta Bowl the next. From where Penn State was as Franklin arrived to now, the entire staff has done a tremendous amount of work in recruiting and improving the quality of the program in a variety of ways. That should not be lost in any of this. But to shrug off a two-game slide on the road against an opponent that Penn State is favored to beat by 15.5 points the week before a challenging three-game stretch is no task to overlook either. Penn State either comes out of this game sliding down to 4-3 and out of the top 25 rankings entirely or they return home with a 5-2 record and a renewed sense of calm and confidence in doing so.

So for Franklin, this is a pivotal point in his Penn State tenure. He has already raised the bar for his program after a loss and seen his team fail to clear it on their first attempt. This is a week where Penn State doesn’t necessarily have to go back to the drawing board, but clean things up a bit on it and figure out what makes them tick as a program.

This can be an encouraging step forward for the program or a sign of potential trouble in the coming month. Let’s see what kind of fire Penn State comes out with Saturday afternoon.

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