Penn State football will usher in a brand new era with the debut of James Franklin as head coach taking place a hop, skip and a jump away over the Atlantic Ocean on Saturday. The Nittany Lions open the 2014 season in Ireland against UCF, and fans are hopeful Franklin’s coaching debut for Penn State will got a little more smoothly than it did for his predecessor in State College, Bill O’Brien.
O’Brien, now the head coach of the Houston Texans in the NFL, made his head coaching debut with Penn State just two seasons ago. He did so under some of the most unprecedented situations imaginable as the NCAA hammered the program following the release of the Louis Freeh Report into the university’s handling and response to the sickening and disturbing crimes of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. As a result Penn State was issued a four-year postseason ban, a significant scholarship loss and players and incoming recruits were given a free pass to transfer to any other program they sought out. Running back Silas Redd moved to USC. Wide receiver Justin Brown went to Oklahoma. Kicker Anthony Fera moved closer to home at Texas. Quarterback Rob Bolden went to LSU (and has since relocated to Eastern Michigan for the 2014 season) and a handful of other players left as well. While the foundation of Penn State’s football program stayed grounded, the immediate depth concerns moving forward proved tricky to get a handle on at first for O’Brien. O’Brien’s Lions won eight games in 2012, a pretty remarkable and respectful win total for a first year head coach, especially considering Penn State dropped the first two games he coached. Penn State was upended at home by Ohio, 24-14, with the Bobcats digging out of a 14-3 halftime deficit thanks to quarterback Tyler Tettleton‘s two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown in the second half.
Penn State fared better in O’Brien’s second season-opener last season with a victory over a Syracuse team that went to and won a bowl game last year. Penn State slugged through a rough first half with a 6-3 lead with all points coming on field goals, but they opened things up in the second half as freshman Christian Hackenberg showed glimpses of his future potential. A pair of 50-yard plus touchdowns in the second half helped Penn State earn the season opening victory in MetLife Stadium, 23-17.
Now the page turns to Franklin, who has lost two straight season openers. Surely, Franklin will hope to snap that personal streak and get off on the right foot with his new job. That Vanderbilt has lost two straight season openers may not come as a huge shock, given it is Vanderbilt, but the losses have come in such heartbreaking fashion you almost had to see it to believe it.
The 2012 opener came at home, against South Carolina. Jadeveon Clowney was a machine in this one, but Vanderbilt had their opportunities. Early in the game, looking to set the tone for the Commodores, Franklin opted to go for it on fourth and five from just across midfield. It did not work, but Franklin showed he is ready to strike early in hopes of cashing in. Later in the first quarter it appeared as though Vanderbilt was ready to push one across the end zone for the game’s first touchdown. Instead, Jordan Rodgers threw an ill-advised pass that was picked off by Shaq Wilson and returned back into Vandy territory to the 49-yard line. Two plays later Marcus Lattimore broke off a 29-yard touchdown run. Momentum shifted, but not quite seized.
Vanderbilt fell behind 10-0 early in the second quarter but battled back in the second quarter to take the game to halftime tied, 10-10. The big play was a 78-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to receiver Jordan Matthews. The Commodores took a 13-10 lead into the fourth quarter against the No. 9 Gamecocks, but on this particular night South Carolina showed why Steve Spurrier’s team had gained so much preseason hype by driving down the field after starting from their 34-yard line for a go-ahead touchdown. The drive may have ended in a touchdown regardless, but a 15-yard personal foul for hitting a defenseless receiver tacked on extra yardage (the ball was caught anyway). Vanderbilt went three-and-out on the ensuing drive and was unable to move past their 38-yard line on their final possession. South Carolina 17, Vanderbilt 13.
“I’m proud with our progress and there’s a lot to build on,” Franklin said after the loss, comparing his team’s results on the field with the results against South Carolina the previous season. “We have to find ways to capitalize on opponents’ [mistakes]. At some point, we are going to have to find a way to win these tough games.”
Vanderbilt won nine games that season, but the season-opening woes continued the next fall.
The following season once again opened in conference play for Vanderbilt. Again Vanderbilt opened the season, this time against an Ole Miss team considered to be on the rise with a surprising recruiting class rejuvenating the program in Oxford. The 2013 opener against the Rebels was quite the rollercoaster of emotions for Franklin and his Commodores. Vanderbilt dug a hole early, again doing themselves in. The game-opening drive started at the Vandy 11 and the Commodores were intercepted at their own 31-yard line. Ole Miss capitalized with a field goal, which may have felt like a victory for Vanderbilt. Vandy went three-and-out on their next drive though, and Ole Miss answered with a touchdown drive. It was ugly early on for Franklin’s crew.
That changed in the second quarter as Vanderbilt put together a 21-0 frame before halftime, owning a 21-10 lead at the break. The second half continued to be as back-and-forth as ever. Vandy took a narrow 28-25 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Rebels took a 32-28 lead about midway through the fourth quarter. With under five minutes to play, Vanderbilt started a drive at their 20-yard line. Needing a touchdown, Franklin felt forced to go for it on 4th and 18 from Vandy’s 24-yard line. It worked, with Austyn Carta-Samuels completing a 42-yard pass to Jordan Matthews. On the very next play, Carta-Samuels connected with Steven Scheu for a 34-yard touchdown with just 90 seconds to play, but Ole Miss did not need much time at all.
Ole Miss running back Jeff Scott broke loose for a 75-yard touchdown run on the second play of the ensuing drive, giving Ole Miss a late 39-35 lead. Vandy nearly answered when Darrius Sims returned the ensuing kickoff 65 yards to the Ole Miss 49-yard line. The Rebels were charged for a facemask penalty to tack on 15 more yards, but Carta-Samuels was intercepted on third down at the Ole Miss 27-yard line. Out of timeouts, Vandy could do nothing but watch the final seconds tick off the clock as Ole Miss took a knee. Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35.
After the game, Franklin once again was forced to lift the spirits and morale of his players.
As Penn State looks to turn a new page on Saturday, so to will Franklin. If Franklin’s track record can tell us anything, it may be that Penn State is going to be in for a real tough battle that could come down to the wire. Avoiding turnovers will be the key, as it usually is. Fortunately for Penn State, even if the season does start with a win, it appears Franklin will have what it takes to avoid letting the game beat them twice.
This article also appears on Nittany Lions Den.