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MMQB - James Franklin is Loyal to a Fault

The head coach’s dogged loyalty may cost this team - if it hasn’t already

Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Let’s start with some disclaimers:

  • James Franklin is a good-to-great head coach, who was perfect for Penn State when he was hired, and whose recruiting has gotten Penn State to where it is now
  • Trace McSorley will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in Penn State history, and is a player who has single-handedly willed the Lions to several key wins the last few years
  • Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk are good receivers, and have been a part of an incredibly productive offense the last three years
  • Koa Farmer stuck around at Penn State when sanctions were at their worst, rather than head someplace warmer or closer to home, and has been critical in several games the last couple seasons
  • I will always be grateful for all of these men for their efforts and dedication to Penn State

Okay, now that we have those out of the way, let’s get down to it: James Franklin is loyal to a fault.

At the end of the 2015 season, the Lions were struggling to another 7-6 record. John Donovan had been given the reins as the offensive coordinator, and with Christian Hackenberg as the starter, the offense sputtered. After being drubbed by Michigan State in the season finale, and with hot seat rumors swirling, Franklin had no choice but to fire Donovan, ultimately hiring Joe Moorhead.

In the bowl game, Franklin continued to ride Hackenberg - despite struggles all season - until he got hurt, at which point Trace McSorley finally played and almost led a comeback victory.

2016 and 2017 saw Moorhead’s offense revitalize the team, with McSorley running the system with poise and efficiency. Of course Moorhead left and Ricky Rahne took over as OC. Early in the season, the offense kept humming along, at one point leading the nation in points per game.

Then suddenly the offense wasn’t good any more. The receivers couldn’t catch. Juwan Johnson and Brandon Polk continued to start, and with each drop, McSorley’s faith in them diminished.

As a result, the scrappy quarterback began to run the ball more. He took a lot of hits and guess what? He got hurt. Franklin finally started to play the younger receivers after Trace got dinged up.

By then, between injuries and lack of faith in/chemistry with his receivers, Trace lost a lot of accuracy. It didn’t matter in wins over Rutgers or Wisconsin, but it did NOT help in the loss to Michigan.

Perhaps it was because Franklin wanted McSorley to get the wins or total touchdown record. Or perhaps it was just because Trace and Franklin have been joined at the hip since 2016, but the head coach has refused to take the ailing quarterback out of games in which he’s clearly been a) injured, b) struggling with his play, or c) both.

Tommy Stevens will almost certainly be the starter next year. When he’s come in to run the offense, his throws have been decisive, with accuracy and strength. When he runs with the ball, he’s been faster and more decisive. Then he comes back out once Trace is feeling up to playing, regardless of whether that’s best for him or the team.

If Nick Saban can pull his starting quarterback in the national championship game, James Franklin can pull his starting quarterback in a regular season game against Rutgers.

And lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Koa Farmer. He’s done a lot for the team, but his biggest highlights have always come when he’s been on the field as a situational pass rushing linebacker. As the starter, he’s slow to read the play, slow to react, and hesitant to drive downhill toward the ball.

Yet somehow he just. keeps. starting. Anyone watching the game can see that Micah Parsons is already an all around better linebacker. Yet he doesn’t start.

The only explanation for all of the above - sticking with Donovan/Hackenberg when the offense was terrible, sticking with Johnson/Polk when they couldn’t catch, sticking with McSorley when injuries and confidence affected his accuracy and mobility, and sticking with Farmer when opposing offenses routinely exploit him for big gains - comes down to one reason, and one reason only: James Franklin is loyal to a fault.

Hopefully it won’t cost this program in the long run.