State College, Pa. — Processing expectations of fans who’ve grown tired of middle-of-the-pack Big Ten finishes is the hardest part of James Franklin’s job.
Mostly because the Penn State football coach can’t control them, win or lose.
But Franklin can affect his players’ preparation heading into the regular-season finale against No. 6 Michigan State (10-1, 6-1 Big Ten). Improving a 3-14 mark against Top 25 teams since 2010 would be a good start for a program trying to reestablish itself as one of college football’s blue bloods in the wake of NCAA sanctions and heavy coaching turnover the past five seasons.
A win against the Spartans, who’ve laid an impressive blueprint for program-building in Franklin’s eyes, would expedite the process. It’s why Franklin insists the Nittany Lions (7-4, 4-3) are playing for more than just a chance to spoil the Spartans’ national championship hopes on Saturday.
“We’ve got a chance to continue to do special things on the field and continue to build our program and our culture and the things that we’re doing,” Franklin said Tuesday.
But every loss has felt similar, which is why Franklin’s been peppered with questions about his team’s perceived lack of progress.
Quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been sacked 81 times in two seasons in an offense that’s averaged just 117 rushing yards per game in that span, and special teams continue to be a mess.
“Is it the pace that everybody wants it to be? No, it’s not,” Franklin said. “But there is progress being made.”
A lot of that progress is happening behind the scenes. Franklin sees young players developing — some quicker than others having been forced into a unique situation where true freshmen and seniors alike all started with a a clean slate just a year ago.
On the field, Franklin points to incremental improvements as evidence that all has not been for naught.
Sparked by Saquon Barkley’s emergence, the rushing offense has been much better at times where it was completely nonexistent for long stretches last season, while Penn State’s defense has done fine.
“I think in a lot of ways, in a lot of aspects, we’re on schedule,” Franklin said.
“That first year we could have went out and signed 15 junior college players. This year could have went out and signed 15 junior college players. But I don’t think myself or the administration or our fans really want to do it that way. We want to do it for the long haul.”