STATE COLLEGE — James Franklin knew the question might be coming, and the Penn State coach was prepared.
In the days since No. 2 Iowa beat the No. 7 Nittany Lions, much of the conversation about the tight 23-20 matchup hasn’t centered on Hawkeyes quarterback Spencer Petras making a big throw in a big spot or the Penn State defense hanging tough on a day when its offense couldn’t move the ball. Even the impressive punting display has flown under the radar.
Instead, the focus has been on the reaction from the sellout crowd at Kinnick Stadium when Penn State players went down with injuries. Iowa fans booed when Nittany Lions like safety Jaquan Brisker, defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, defensive tackle Dvon Ellies and other were slow to get up from the turf or needed assistance in leaving the field.
The thought process was that Penn State was attempting to slow down the Iowa offense whenever it gained momentum by having players take dives. Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz threw fuel on the fire Tuesday when he said the Iowa fans “thought they smelled a rat” when asked about the crowd’s reaction to the Penn State injuries.
After practice Wednesday, Franklin was asked about the topic — one that he expressed displeasure at immediately after the game — and the eighth-year coach reached into his waistband and pulled out a sheet of paper with notes on it.
Then, he spoke for five-and-a-half minutes (the following is edited for clarity):
“I hope that was loud enough that everybody heard the question. I’m going to answer the question. I kind of wrote some things down because I thought this was coming. First of all, I would ask anybody that’s listening to take your Penn State hat off or take your Iowa hat off, and I’m just going to talk in what I believe and what I think from a strategy standpoint, from a common sense perspective, from what’s good for football, in my opinion — college football.
“So how does this strategy make sense against a huddle team? People use this strategy to slow people down. Spread offenses, tempo offenses. They huddle. So that strategy did not make sense in this situation. In our six years of playing them, six years straight, 4-2 with our record. Has that ever shown up? Has anybody seen that? In my eight years as a head coach, has that showed up at Penn State? In my 12 years as a head coach, has that showed up? Has not showed up.
“Plus, our defense was playing lights out. Our defense was playing great. Our defense was playing lights out. We turned the ball over to start the game inside the 5-yard line, held them to a field goal. So again, go back and check it. And again, I’m not talking — I got tremendous respect for the University of Iowa, I got tremendous respect for their fans. It was a hell of a game in a tough environment. I’m not making excuses. I’m just stating how I see the facts. Take your fan hats off. I want the Penn State fans to take their hats off.
“Now let’s talk about injuries. OK, now, hold on a second, before that — now put yourself in the shoes of a parent. Of a parent. Your son is down on the field for an injury and the stadium is booing them. We didn’t just boo that. We booed balls falling off tees by the wind. I don’t know who we were booing for that. We weren’t gaining an advantage off that. But your son’s down on the field with an injury, and I just told you PJ Mustipher is done for the year and we’re booing. Is that good for college football? Is that good for college football?
“And again, from a strategy standpoint, would it be strategic for us to tell PJ Mustipher to go down and fake an injury, one of our best players, one of our starters, one of our captains. Does that make sense? If you’re going to do it, you wouldn’t do it with your starter, your captain. All right, let’s talk about his backup, Dvon Ellies, who also got booed. So would it make sense for the backup D-tackle, we’ve already lost our starter, to send him out of the game for a play? I don’t think so.
“AK [Arnold Ebiketie], maybe our best defensive player. And his probably looked the worst. He went down. Maybe that’s because he plays so hard and he was cramping. But am I going to tell AK to go down and not play a play on defense? Does that make any sense? Brisker, he went down twice against Wisconsin. They didn’t boo him. Sean Clifford, did we want him to go down and not return in the game? Devyn Ford, our starting tailback in the game, went down and did not return in the game. Did we want that to happen? Lovett went down, did not return in the game. [Safety Jonathan] Sutherland, our captain — our captain — went down and did not return in the game.
“So it was a physical game. Was there a bunch of injuries? I get it. I get it. And how it may have looked, I get it. I’m telling you, we don’t coach it. We don’t teach it. And may it look that way because it was a bunch of injuries in the game? I get it. It was bunch of injuries in the game. But 70% of those guys never returned. So all I’m saying is I don’t think this is right for college football. If a player goes down and it’s my son and the stadium’s booing him — it’s no different than a player going down in practice.
“One of the things I tell the coaches all the time, if a player goes down in practice — what did coaches used to say for 100 years? Get up, you’re fine. Well what if he’s not? So I just, I wasn’t attacking the University of Iowa. I’m trying to protect college football. I don’t think that’s the right thing for our game.
So I know that was a long answer, but I got people coming in to me all day showing me things and things like that, and I got tremendous respect for their program, for their head coach, he’s been doing it a long time, but I felt like after the game I had to say something because when I got my starting D-tackle PJ Mustipher down on the field and he can’t play for the rest of the season, he’s my captain and they’re booing him? I don’t think anybody would feel good about that.
“We had a number of guys go out of the game and never came back. That was a long answer.”
It was a wide-ranging answer from Franklin, and it touched on a number of key points. One of the main ones is that it didn’t make much sense for Penn State to have Mustipher, Ebiketie and Brisker, three of the team’s top defenders, off of the field at any time. Plus, the Iowa offense is regarded as efficient and deliberate, so it’s a unit that didn’t necessarily need to be slowed down.
It remains to be seen whether this is the last word on the subject. Penn State is on its bye. Iowa hosts Purdue on Saturday. Each team has big goals ahead of it.
But there’s a chance that the two teams could square off in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis in December. And beyond that, the Hawkeyes are scheduled to visit the Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 28, 2023.
Mark your calendars.
Daniel Gallen covers Penn State for PennLive. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Follow PennLive’s Penn State coverage on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
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