Brian BennettESPN Staff Writer
James Franklin has traveled to various parts of the country to recruit since Penn State lost to USC 52-49 in the Rose Bowl.
The Nittany Lions head coach noted how many people on the trail have come up to him and remarked how that was one of the best bowl games they’d ever seen. Franklin’s response?
“It wasn’t that darned good,” Franklin said during a news conference on Saturday morning. “You know, I understand from an entertainment standpoint it was awesome. But we didn’t win the game.”
No one expected Penn State to get anywhere near Pasadena last year. The team’s 11-3 record and Big Ten title took just about everybody by surprise. But that doesn’t mean the Nittany Lions are feeling satisfied by their huge comeback season.
They know they’ll face something totally new — at least for everyone on the current roster — in 2017: sky-high expectations. With the bulk of the two-deep returning, headlined by running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, Penn State is being picked by many as a Top 5 team entering next season. Mark Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 has the Lions at No. 4.
That will present a different sort of challenge in State College this offseason, as players will be slapped on the back and congratulated for their 2016 performance and lauded as preseason College Football Playoff contenders. Surely such talk is more than welcome around a program where most of the conversations the past few years have centered around much thornier subjects. Still, it’s a different challenge nonetheless.
“I think handling success with young people in general is a challenge,” Franklin said. “You know, are we going to be as driven? Are we going to be as motivated as we were this year? That’s going to be the secret. Are we going to work as hard for our chemistry? Are we going to be able to work as hard for our culture? Are we going to be able to work as hard collectively and individually to get where we want to be?”
Luckily, this kind of stuff is in Franklin’s wheelhouse. He did earn an undergraduate degree in psychology, after all. Franklin said there are definite buttons to push that will motivate this team. They include being left out of the playoff at No. 5 despite winning the Big Ten, while the league team they beat in the regular season, Ohio State, made the field of four.
And then there’s the Rose Bowl. Penn State led by 14 points in the fourth quarter, but it also went scoreless in the final 16:55 before losing on a field goal on the game’s final play.
One play in that fourth quarter particularly sticks with Barkley. He told The (Allentown, Pa.) Morning Call last week that he still thinks about getting stuffed on a third-down run with 2:16 left in the game.
“I feel like if I got the first down, the game ends,” Barkley said. “I’ve got to make a play there. Somehow, some way. It was a really great defensive call by USC. They blitzed right into the run. I made a guy miss but I didn’t do enough.
“That’s an area where you have to grow. If you want to be elite, you can’t fail in those situations.”
Barkley’s backfield mate, McSorley, had an incredible season in throwing for over 3,600 yards and 29 touchdowns. But the junior, who had four touchdown passes but also three interceptions against USC, has room to grow as well. Penn State doesn’t want to harness his playmaking ability, but Franklin said he can improve his decision-making to an elite level.
“Say, 12 percent of the time last year he made decisions that he would have, now looking back at it, made differently,” Franklin said. “How can we take that and reduce it to maybe 8 percent or 6 percent next year and kind of keep heading in that direction?”
“I think that’s what you just want to constantly be doing as players and as coaches and as programs is evolving and growing and not letting small setbacks and moments of time affect your overall development. And I think Trace has really got a good feel and maturity and foundation to be able to do those types of things.”
The Nittany Lions can take pride in a whole lot of things from their 2016 season. But they left just enough on the table to have some fuel for their offseason training.
“The way I look at it, there’s one happy team at the end of the year, and that’s Clemson and my boy, Dabo [Swinney],” Franklin said. “Everybody else is salty and angry and ready to get back to work again. And we’ve got a lot of work that we still need to do in every area possible.
“I can guarantee you with the leadership on our team and the coaches on our team, we’ll have a long discussion about that as soon as recruiting is over, and who we want to be and where we want to go and what sacrifices are we willing to do to get there.”