Penn State has it rolling, but here’s the 1 area that worries me
All things considered, this has been a dream start for Penn State — especially after last season. Penn State is 3-0 with 2 quality wins, ranked No. 6 in the country. And Ohio State is vulnerable.
After years worth of close calls and unmet expectations, life is good for Penn State. But if I had to nitpick, there is an area that gives me a little pause when considering the Nittany Lions a contender to win the Big Ten and go to the College Football Playoff, and I’m not talking about the James Franklin-to-USC rumors that will probably linger all season.
The Nittany Lions can’t run the ball.
When Purdue is the only team that averages fewer rushing yards per game than you, that’s something that catches people’s attention. We are only a quarter of the way through the season, so it’s early, but Penn State is averaging only 124.7 rushing yards per game — down nearly 50 per game from last year when Penn State, well, wasn’t very good. Just 2 years ago, Penn State averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and now it is below 3.8.
While Penn State has its sights set on a Big Ten championship and a berth in the College Football Playoff, be warned that the last team to make the CFP averaging fewer than 4 yards per rush was 2015 Michigan State. And we saw how that went. (Alabama 38-0.)
Penn State has been in the top 5 in the Big Ten in rushing the last 3 years, so the hope is that water will eventually find its level, but the early returns from what was supposed to be a loaded backfield and one of the league’s best offensive lines have been uninspiring.
Noah Cain, the No. 6 running back in the 2019 class who came in with a ton of hype out of IMG Academy, hasn’t yet looked like the superstar he’s been pegged as. After only 45 yards on 19 carries against Auburn, he’s down to 3.4 yards per carry — 16th in the Big Ten for those averaging over 8 attempts per game. In fairness to Cain, he is coming off a season-ending leg injury suffered in last year’s opener, but he was reportedly at full strength this preseason. Maybe he is shaking off the rust and needs a little time. All I know is we’ve seen a lot of explosive running backs in the B1G — Blake Corum, Kenneth Walker III and TreVeyon Henderson come to mind — and Cain isn’t one of them. Not even close.
Maybe it has to do with the defenses Penn State has played against so far. Wisconsin has one of the best defenses in the country, and Auburn’s front 7 is no joke. There’s probably a reason that Penn State had so many guys running free in the secondary against Wisconsin; teams are stacking the box against Penn State. But what’s the excuse against Ball State, a team that Penn State should have had an advantage over at virtually every position, especially up front? Cain managed just 69 yards on 20 carries, with a long of 9 yards. Cain has only one run of 10 yards or more; the same amount as wideouts David Bell of Purdue and Chimere Dike of Wisconsin. There are 42 B1G players with multiple runs of 10 yards or more, and all but 7 of them aren’t touching the ball as much as Cain.
Not that Cain hasn’t contributed in other areas. How many running backs can do this?
Get you a running back that will stick a blitzing linebacker like Noah Cain did here pic.twitter.com/DFqZvVwRgn
— Joe Broback (@joebroback) September 20, 2021
Cain has been on the field for 134 plays, with no other back getting more than 33 snaps. I’m a little surprised Penn State hasn’t utilized backups Devyn Ford and Keyvone Lee more, because those guys have starting experience. In the 2 games that mattered, those 2 combined for a total of 13 snaps. Baylor graduate transfer John Lovett made his debut against Auburn and got 18 snaps, so maybe he will be able to spell Cain now and again.
Sean Clifford entered this season with a ton of question marks surrounding his ability after he briefly lost the job last season to Will Levis. But Clifford has played exceptionally this season, with only 1 interception on 94 pass attempts (and that was on a deep ball at the end of the first half, so fairly inconsequential). Last season, Clifford threw an interception roughly once every 28 throws, so he is taking care of the ball much better early on.
But if you’re Penn State, given Clifford’s turnover history, do you really want to put this on him to go out and win you games week in, week out?
First-year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has done a great job being creative in scheming ways to get the ball to Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington and all 3 tight ends, even lining up a right tackle in the slot.
mike yurcich is a diabolical son of a gun and we love it pic.twitter.com/Xquz8j76D0
— Bill DiFilippo (@billdifilippo) September 20, 2021
But Yurcich has to find a way to get Cain (and/or Lovett) going. The offensive line has gotten off to a slow start, which obviously hasn’t helped matters. Of the 31 B1G offensive tackles with enough snaps, right tackle Caedan Wallace ranks dead last in run blocking grade. Guards Juice Scruggs and Eric Wilson have been below average, as has center Mike Miranda.
Why does this matter? Because of what lies ahead.
One of the biggest games of the season is in 3 weeks when Penn State plays at No. 5 Iowa. It is really, really tough to throw the ball against the Hawkeyes, as they have one of the best sets of corners in the country in Matt Hankins and Riley Moss. Plus, Penn State knows as well as anyone about how to win in Iowa City — it’s on the ground. Saquon Barkley went off for 212 yards in Penn State’s 21-19 win in 2017, and Cain had the best game of his career in rushing for 102 yards in Penn State’s 17-12 victory in 2019. These games are never shootouts, they are slugfests won in the trenches.
Penn State ought to spend this week against Villanova reestablishing its run game in preparation for Indiana in Week 5, because the Hoosiers have been one of the toughest teams to pass against in the Big Ten the last few seasons. Then, it’s the aforementioned showdown at Iowa.
It’s early, and I don’t want to dampen the good vibes in Happy Valley. Maybe I’m overreacting to a small sample size. Remember that old cliché saying from your parents? “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”
Well in the case of Penn State’s run game, “I’m not worried, I’m just a little concerned.”
Time will tell.