James Franklin deadpanned the media and offered plaintive coachspeak about the loss his team just endured. But it wasn’t just any old loss. Penn State got knocked down and sand was kicked in its face.
Franklin, who only a few days ago claimed Michigan’s secondary was coached to disguise pass interference calls, had no real excuses to parachute.
“Obviously, defensively they kicked our butts,” the fifth-year Nittany Lions’ coach said. “We did not play well. We did not play well today.”
Through the Michigan Stadium tunnel, up a flight of stairs and deep within next-door Crisler Center, Jim Harbaugh was singing a different tune — literally. Harbaugh recollected a jingle from Budweiser’s 1977 “When do you say Bud?” ad campaign, and gave it a personal spin through a hoarse vibrato.
When you say Don Brown, you’ve said it all.
Harbaugh actually sang the praises of his defensive coordinator in the Michigan football team’s 42-7 drubbing. A minute later, Harbaugh answered a phone call mid-press conference, because the man who engineered the season’s loudest exclamation point found it more important than verbalizing what just happened on the field. It speaks for itself.
That is what Saturday afternoon was — a supposed collision course turned mismatch turned highway robbery for Harbaugh and the Wolverines. Penn State was the polar opposite, appearing disorganized from the first whistle.
This wasn’t last year’s game, trying for meaningless touchdowns in the final seconds, cackling at the expense of a downtrodden Michigan. But it sure felt like it in some ways.
“It’s fine if you want to laugh at running the score up and have a jolly old time, because in my mind that’s fair game, that’s football,” said defensive end Chase Winovich. “It is what it is. But at the same time, you can’t get mad when stuff like that happens back at you.”
When Donovan Peoples-Jones found the endzone, he imitated Saquon Barkley’s celebration from a year ago. Winovich and quarterback Shea Patterson mimicked a home run swing after successful plays, an homage to Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley’s go-to celebration.
It is easy to give rightful credit to Harbaugh for piecing together the most complete effort from the most complete team he’s had in his four years. Franklin certainly does. But the Nittany Lions’ shortcomings were not entirely personnel-based. The ineptitude of its head coach during routine plays set a tone.
Only an impossible laundry list of changing variables beyond a game plan would’ve changed Saturday’s result. But Franklin made an array of head-scratching decisions comparable to blindly smashing buttons on an Xbox controller while playing Madden.
Take Penn State’s first possession: a punt on 4th-and-24. Miscommunication in the blocking scheme and a dwindling clock inspired Franklin to take a useless timeout, a reprieve from an especially daunting 4th-and-29.
Towards the end of the second quarter, Franklin called another unnecessary timeout prior to a punt, leaving time for a potential Wolverines drive to end the half.
On the Nittany Lions’ previous possession came Franklin’s most inexplicable choice. When receiving a kickoff that sailed out of bounds to draw a penalty, Franklin declined the penalty and a spot at its own 35-yard line. So the Wolverines rekicked and tackled returner KJ Hamler at Penn State’s own 23.
“We had 39 yards of offense at that point,” Franklin said. “So, decline the penalty and make them kick it again, we did that earlier in the year. … Obviously we didn’t execute well enough and ended up losing yardage there.”
The list continues. Franklin pulled McSorley — who four days ago he called “the best football player in college football” — and put in backup Tommy Stevens. His first throw was a pick-six.
Deciding between an uncomfortable McSorley and Stevens became a game of hot potato for three straight series.
“That was obviously — we can’t turn the ball over,” Franklin said. “Can’t turn the ball over in that situations, so felt like we had to go back with Trace.”
Through perplexing coaching decisions, Harbaugh was all smiles. The Michigan defense, of course, was humming, while the offense drained the clock and pounced on the Nittany Lion’s errors. A path for the Wolverines to the College Football Playoff lost another hurdle in the process.
Penn State, comprised of talent among the Big Ten’s best, is now just searching for a better bowl game. Franklin was left on stage in front of the media, trying to diagnose Saturday’s issues.
“Limited at some positions from an injury standpoint, really good plan by them, we had opportunities that we didn’t hit,” Franklin listed off the top of his head. “You can kind of spread the wealth.”
A long look in the mirror could help, too.