There was a time just a few years ago when James Franklin didn’t know what to do. The Penn State offense shuffled in a different running back each series for the first half of the season.

In the first 4 games of the season, no running back had more than 10 carries. Each of the 4 had between 19 and 26 carries heading into October. It wasn’t until the sixth game of the season at Iowa that a Penn State (Noah Cain) finally emerged as a workhorse, though that eventually changed by the end of the season.

It wasn’t that Franklin couldn’t find his guy. They were all his guys. He had too many quality running backs (3 were top-100 recruits) and not enough carries to go around. It was a great problem to have.

Simpler times, indeed.

The once-loaded running back room is now in dire straits. In 2021, Penn State couldn’t find any running backs as it finished 118th nationally in rushing. It didn’t have a 100-yard rusher all season; it had 8 such games by 3 different backs in 2019.

Looking around the Big Ten, it’s hard to make a case that there was a more disappointing group than Penn State’s running backs. This is the program that produced Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders within the last 6 years and looked like it was on the cusp of having a situation Ohio State had with its stacked wide receiver room, or Wisconsin with its talented linebackers. Remember how Georgia and Alabama just started producing pro after pro in the backfield? Penn State was on that trajectory for a minute.

Instead, only Purdue was worse in the B1G at running the ball, and the Boilermakers don’t really make that part of their identity. Penn State wants to — heck, it needs to — and it failed miserably .

If I had to rank the most disappointing position groups in the B1G, I’d start with Penn State’s running backs and also include:

  • Ohio State’s linebackers (lack of speed and athleticism showed up consistently in big games)
  • Iowa’s offensive line (119th nationally in tackles for loss allowed)
  • Nebraska’s special teams as a whole (weekly blunders often cost the Huskers a win)
  • Minnesota’s QB (how is Tanner Morgan and the passing game this much worse than he was 2 years ago)

But the reason Penn State tops the list is that I never could’ve seen this coming.

Penn State seemed to have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield heading into the 2020 season, even after former 5-star recruit Ricky Slade transferred. But then Journey Brown, who had 9 TDs and averaged 118.6 yards over the final 5 games of 2019, had to medically retire from football after being diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy before the season. Noah Cain went down for the season in the opener against Indiana, and the rest is history.

This year was a disaster. Cain lacked the burst he showed in 2019 in averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, and he transferred to LSU. Baylor transfer John Lovett, expected to form a 1-2 punch with Cain, averaged 3.4 yards per carry. Keyvone Lee has led Penn State in rushing each of the past 2 seasons, but the coaching staff doesn’t seem to trust him. He didn’t have more than 10 carries in a game this season until Week 11 against Michigan.

Penn State’s backfield felt like it was going to turn into one of those position groups that every few years, the next guy emerges as an early-round draft pick. So many options, no matter who played. It felt like a near certainty that one of these guys would emerge as the next great Penn State back, following in the footsteps of Barkley and Sanders. It’s just strange that it shook out this way.

The rushing attack is key for Penn State to compete in the East. The Nittany Lions had a lot going for them this year; a terrific defense, a decent passing game with Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington and an experienced QB in Sean Clifford. But to be one-dimensional against some of these Big Ten defenses really hurt Penn State, as it lost 6 of its last 8 games after starting 5-0.

Unlocking this running game is the key to a much better 2022. The good news is that Nicholas Singleton, the Gatorade National Player of the Year, looks ready to contribute right away as a true freshman. Caziah Holmes, who redshirted this year after showing potential as a true freshman, will also be in the mix.

Singleton, in particular, is one to watch. It’s possible for a true freshman to succeed in the backfield against B1G defenses, as Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen completely dominated as a 17-year-old in the Big Ten, though he got about a month before being thrust into the featured role. Singleton may have to play significant snaps right away out of necessity. The Nittany Lions play at Purdue and at Auburn in the first month of the season, so there won’t be any easing into 2022.

Penn State has had high-end recruits in the backfield before, and it hasn’t worked out, so Singleton is no sure thing. But there will be a lot of pressure on him to rescue this struggling backfield, fair or not.

Figuring out how to produce a more efficient running game should be at the top of offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich’s to-do list this offseason, or else more disappointment is on the way.