James Franklin had won 60 games as Penn State's head coach coming into the game against Wisconsin. Most of those games were won because Penn State was an outright better team than the team that lined up across from them. But that was not the case on Saturday. The Wisconsin team they faced was experienced and talented at nearly every position. That's why the Badgers were ranked in every preseason top 25 poll. They're a damn good team.
I'm sure if you saw James Franklin's offensive game plan coming into Saturday, it would have read something like this:
1) Grind out yards on the ground with the stable of workhorses we have in the backfield.
2) Get Sean some intermediate but safe throws to get the passing game going.
3) And if 1) and 2) are successful, we'll eventually pop a big run or Jahan Dotson will do a Jahan Dotson thing.
However, when game time rolled around Penn State didn't get to dictate the terms of the game. Wisconsin was a good enough team to control this game from the opening kick. Their defensive game plan was simple:
1) On standard down and distance, load the box and stop the run
2) On passing downs, bring pressure and make the QB make tough throws
Paul Chryst and Jim Leonard basically said "make Sean Clifford beat us." And honestly, it was a solid game plan. We all saw what Sean did last year when he was under pressure. It didn't go so well for Penn State.
For the entire first half, James Franklin and Mike Yurcich stuck to their game plan. And the results were exactly what Wisconsin was hoping for. The Penn State backs couldn't get anything going. Sean Clifford struggled to complete passes 10 to 15 yards down field.
What happened in the second half is something that hasn't happened too much during the previous 60 wins. Franklin and Yurcich recognized what was happening when they were on offense. They realized that Wisconsin was selling out to stop the run. They realized that Wisconsin was bringing pressure and playing 10 to 15 yards off Penn State's receivers.
What happened next was really encouraging. They changed up the offensive game plan.
Franklin and Yurcich basically said "You want to take away the run and play soft coverage? Ok, we'll throw some quick hitters to the outside and then go deep when you come up to stop us." And guess what? It freaking worked like a charm. While they only scored 16 points in the second half, they should have at least scored 20 (lost 4 points in the kicking game), and arguably could have scored more than that if Sean had connected on a couple more deep balls to open receivers.
All this leads me to my biggest take away from this weekend. I liked seeing the defense play tough all game. I liked seeing Sean take care of the ball and be a competent B1G quarterback. But I LOVED seeing the offense make adjustments. Because ultimately, that's what won Penn State the game. James Franklin and his staff made adjustments. Paul Chryst and his staff did not.
The college football community loves to make fun of Franklin as a gameday coach. Some of the criticism is warranted. Some of it is just a product of college football Twitter wanting to make everything into a meme. But what we saw on Saturday was a far cry from that. We saw James Franklin out-coach Paul Chryst, a coach who has won three B1G West division titles and two NY6 bowls since 2016.
If winning football games was determined on talent alone, Penn State would beat most team they play. But they would never be the most talented team in the Big Ten. And they would certainly never be one of the four most talented teams in the country.
So if the goal is to win the Big Ten and make the playoff, Penn State is going to have to out-coach some people. Franklin is going to have to make more in game adjustments. Wisconsin won't be the last team to employ the "make Sean Clifford beat us" strategy. Somebody on the schedule is going to figure out how to take away Jahan Dotson. Somebody is going to figure out how to pop explosive plays on our defense. Will Penn State be able to make the necessary adjustment when the time comes? We won't know until we get there, but what we saw Saturday makes me think we have a chance.