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Amid the noise, James Franklin aims for breakthrough against Michigan

Michigan’s raucous visit to Penn State on Saturday with the Big Ten suspends Jim Harbaugh Penn State finds itself at a considerable turning point on Friday, centered around three dozen. He is ranked No. 10 with playoff visions still viable because he plays number 3 Michigan. He’s operating in the 10th season of coach James Franklin’s tenure while yearning for a rare victory against one of his two foes (Ohio State is the other). And he’s playing on the 10th anniversary of arguably the best coaching job of this century in college football.

“Man, it was just… it was a hell of a time,” said Kyle Woestmann, 32, looking back 10 years.

Thursday marked the 10th anniversary of when Vanderbilt, for whom Woestmann played defensive end while Franklin was head coach, went to The Swamp and beat Florida, 34-17, a stalwart from a season past to upset the entire known order of the southeastern universe. She had already beaten Georgia. A few weeks later, he would beat Tennessee. Throughout Franklin’s three seasons (2011-13), going 24-15 to Vanderbiltthe results sent columnists scouring the historical files for nuggets such as the last time he won nine games (1915), when he last won nine games two seasons in a row (never), or when he last beat Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. in the same season (never).

“They knew how to develop talent,” Woestmann said of Franklin and his team. “They knew how to win games. And they knew how to make us feel cared for and loved.

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These days, of course, Franklin is 86-37 at Penn State, but also amidst long grumblings from a fan base that often thinks of itself as more of a 106-17 (or 123-0) than like a place like 86-37. . He has four 11-win seasons, a Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl victory, a Cotton Bowl victory and a Fiesta Bowl victory, but also this 4-15 record against Ohio State and Michigan, this record of 3-16 against top 10 teams and that lack of College Football Playoff berths.

On Monday, he had his pre-Michigan press conference, and he began as always with a review of previous events. 51-15 victory at Maryland: “We have won the battle for turnover. We have won the battle of explosive play. We won the third battle. We won the sack battle. We have won the startup battle. We did not win the penalty battle. It’s become a familiar part of the national landscape to follow his sessions and note how reporters ask him how he’s doing, and he says fine, and he asks back how they’re doing, and they say fine, everything matters… in fact without any content of chatter.

“You’re not in your usual room and place,” he told a reporter appearing on Zoom, before commenting on the reporter’s WiFi and then saying, “I’m going to shut up.”

“Your flashlight is on, just so you know,” he told another. “That happens a lot with you.”

Another: “Hey, James, how are you?”

“Hey, John, how are you?”

They don’t spare him the tough questions, and he doesn’t bristle at the fact that they don’t. “That’s a good question,” he often says. This week, they revisited Michigan’s running game last year against Penn State (55 carries, 418 yards), Penn State’s liability gap on defense, Penn State’s struggle at wide receiver, the need for Penn State to demonstrate some dynamism on offense. (“But yes, in your opinion, yes. Yes. There is no doubt about it.”)

His team went 11-2 last season, and you can guess the sources of the “2.” It occupies one of those familiar college football perches across time, that of the program that does really well when its people want it really, really well. He is sailing in this situation even though he has just passed the 10-year mark of sailing in a completely different atmosphere.

Woestmann redshirted in 2010 while wondering if he made a mistake in choosing Vanderbilt over other offers like Georgia. “And then Franklin comes,” he said. “And I’ll never forget we had our first mat practice. It was around 4:30 in the morning. And he just knocked us out, and I was like, “Half our team might give up after this.” »

He also had another thought: “It’s the SEC.”

The success of Franklin, his coaching staff and Vanderbilt with records of 6-7, 9-4 and 9-4 from 2011 to 2013 probably exceeds any other football achievement in the country in this young century due of the brutal hegemony against which Vanderbilt operated: the SECOND. In this area, Vanderbilt long lived as an underling, often ridiculed for his emphasis on academics. It had at least one world-class talent in receiver Jordan Matthews — 112 receptions in 2013, 274 now in the NFL — but it was mostly built on the eternal value of being shut out.

“First team meeting with Franklin,” Woestmann said, “he came in and he said, ‘Here’s the deal.’ Nobody thinks I deserve to be a head coach. And nobody thinks you can win in the SEC. We’re going to work together to prove them wrong.

He added something that many beginners might miss: Let us strive to honor the elderly here, who have already worked so hard. Soon he was inviting former players for meaningful visits, players who knew “the same job whether you were playing in 1980 or 2020,” Woestmann said, and “a pride in having played football at a school like Vanderbilt where you are constantly at a disadvantage and an underdog.

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During their journey to three bowl games and two bowl victories, they found themselves strengthening their ability to fight into something totally fearless and totally formidable. Everyone felt “full of fire,” Woestmann said, from Franklin to his staff, defensive coordinator Bob Shoop and Brent Pry (now head coach at Virginia Tech) and Josh Gattis (now offensive coordinator of Maryland) and Dwight Galt (a force). coach Woestmann praises). At the time of the opening game against Mississippi in 2013, Woestmann said, “I’ll never forget, man, I’m warming up, I’m looking at the student section, and all the Vanderbilt students are hanging over the rails, dressed in black. He was thinking: “This is what Vanderbilt football could be.”

Woestmann, who led the 2013 team in sacks, has a few telling snapshots in his memory: the first defensive group against Georgia when the confidence burst, the halftime in Florida when the confidence soared, the moment when Quarterback Jordan Rodgers returned to the game at the Music City Bowl. after the blood gushed from his face, the idea that coaches once ran quarterback Patton Robinette over and over again at Florida because the play worked even if it didn’t make people coo at a pretty brilliant. Back in the corners, the safeties, “the Steven Clarkes, the Andre Hals of the world, they were athletes, and they were skilled, but man, they were tough and they were smart,” Woestmann said.

“We are going to be tougher than hell, give you hell and wear you out,” Woestmann said. “And we’re going to run whatever play we need to play to win the game, and nothing more, nothing less.”

When the atrocities struck in the summer of 2013, four members of the team were charged with gang rape for which three still serving sentencesFranklin handled this with layoffs within a week and with frank team meetings afterward.

Then, gradually, this reshaping of the reality of football focused attention on Franklin. The native Pennsylvanian who played quarterback at East Stroudsburg University left in 2014 for Penn State, just as that empire was trying to breathe again after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Some Vanderbilt players have expressed dismay over Franklin’s departure, and Woestmann isn’t shy about saying out loud that he was one of them. Ten years later, at age 32, he said: “We were all very hurt by how much we loved them and the staff, and it was kind of a knee-jerk reaction. » Ten years later, he feels profound gratitude. Ten years later, Franklin is trying to beat Michigan in a different kind of noise and at a different time.

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