The idea that any given regular season game is the biggest of a coach’s time with a program is often an exaggeration. For places like Penn State, a Saturday meeting with Michigan provides the Nittany Lions with another marquee opportunity, but an opportunity that will likely come again. Even in the face of monumental change within the Big Ten, there’s no particular reason to think losing on Saturday will fundamentally change Penn State’s ability to regularly find itself in these moments.

Winning on Saturday has a great upside, but losing does not materially change much of what was already there. None of this is to say that Saturday’s outcome is inconsequential, but the moment will come again.

However, there is an argument that this is the most interesting game of James Franklin’s time at Penn State so far. Let’s trek back to the Ohio State game.

See, if Penn State had lost in a game in which both teams moved the ball and the Nittany Lions came out on the wrong end of an otherwise visually competitive game, fans would have been disappointed but there would have been something to sell. Franklin could have stood up and told the masses that they are close, and you could look back at that game and believe in what he was selling. Maybe you found it to be disappointing, but 21 or so points is a reasonable output in Columbus.

But coming off of an abysmal offensive performance [against a good defense] the Nittany Lions left feeling so close and yet so far from their divisional nemesis. There was nothing to sell to everyone afterwards, just two field goals before a meaningless touchdown.

And that’s what makes Saturday so interesting. Penn State will likely not be racing Michigan to 30 points, but the Nittany Lions need to show an anxious crowd something to believe in, both for the moment at hand and for the future. If the Nittany Lions start to lose their edge offensively in these big games and can only hang on by the grace of a good defense, it will do little to inspire the masses. So the question is posed to Franklin himself: For the most part, the issue in these games has never been competitiveness. When you take off your coaching hat and put on the trying to get people to buy into where you are and where you want to go hat, do you think there is a big picture need to show people a more complete game offensively in juxtaposition to how it went against Ohio State?

“Yes,” Franklin said on Monday. “I think that’s a fair question. Again, you’re playing the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 defense in the country, and they’re ranked that for a reason. You know, they’re ranked that for a reason. [But] to your point, yes. Yes. There is no doubt about it.”

Franklin isn’t wrong about the challenges his team will face independent of their own abilities. Expecting Penn State to just roll past a very good Michigan defense is an unreasonable ask, but fans hoping to see a bit more legitimate competence and drives that last longer than three plays is probably not. In the absence of that, Franklin runs the risk of losing a crowd both now and in the future. It’s one thing to lose, it’s another thing to look like you never really had a chance. The latter would be new for Penn State.

“The rankings are there for a reason, and for the same reason people struggle against our defense,” Franklin added. “[But] yes, there is no doubt about it, that in these types of games we have to show that we can manufacture yards and points against whoever we’re playing. But I think there is a way to do that, and I also think as a coaching staff, we have to be patient and we’ve got to capitalize when those moments come, because there is about four to six moments or plays a game in these types of games that you got to capitalize on them and we need to capitalize.”

Franklin saying “yes” four times in a fairly short answer is telling in its own right. For as much as Franklin buys into his own messaging of 1-0 each week, he has been around too long and is too smart to ignore the implications of a poor performance on Saturday. The Nittany Lions are imperfect and losing is not the end of the world for Penn State, but looking bad in the process could hurt Franklin’s cache more than the result itself. And to some degree he knows that.

In turn it makes Saturday one of the – if not the – most interesting game under Franklin so far. A chance to see how his program manages the moment when the moment is so existentially important. What did they learn from Ohio State? What did Drew Allar learn? How does the running back rotation work? Can the receivers – mainly Dante Cephas and KeAndre Lambert-Smith – be consistent threats? Can the tight ends block and make plays when called on in space to do so? Fourth down risks? Everything, all of it, is telling, interesting and meaningful.

And it might bare out over the course of a rock fight. Two teams that do fairly simple things, seeing which can do them better.

“Could this game turn out to be game where there is multiple touchdowns scored on both sides and it comes down to a one-possession game and more of a shootout? Yes,” Franklin said. “Is it more likely to come down to a low-scoring game and a battle and a one-possession game and four-minute, two-minute type situations at the end? Probably most likely.”

“So for us, we got to make sure that we don’t lose patience. There will be times where punting may be the best option. We just got to manage this game, and when the opportunities present themselves, we got to take advantage of it. I think patience is going to be critical. I look at the Iowa game. I think that was one of the most important things we did. Came in at halftime and I said, don’t get impatient. Keep doing what we’re doing against a really good football team and a really good defense, one of the best defenses in college football and has been for a long time. Don’t lose your patience. Sometimes as an offense and offensive play caller you can do that. You can do that.”

Do the Nittany Lions lose their patience? Add it to the list of interesting questions.

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