Why Penn State can't run the ball. And does it matter?
It’s abundantly clear that the Penn State offense relies on finesse. The evidence has piled up along with Sean Clifford’s passing yards through the Lions’ 4-0 start, and the case is pretty much sealed after Saturday’s 38-17 victory over Villanova.
Penn State can’t run.
Finesse is fun, especially the way first-year offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich does it. But this is football! At some point, words like strength, power and toughness should apply to a team that fancies itself a Playoff contender. Those words especially should apply to the 300-pound guys who man the line of scrimmage. And they should apply to power backs Noah Cain and Keyvone Lee, who’ve looked the part in previous Penn State seasons.
But Penn State is not build that way, especially not this year. The No. 6 Nittany Lions won’t win any slugfests with the likes of Iowa or Michigan; they’ll have to beat them with speed and guile. But every once in a while, almost every team will need to get a tough yard on the ground. And Penn State can’t.
Villanova held Penn State to 18 first-half rushing yards and 80 for the game. Far from using its easiest game on the schedule to work things out in its ground game, Penn State created more questions. Cain, after getting the bulk of the carries through 3 weeks, ran just once for 2 yards. Is he hurt, resting, or just out of favor?
Lee, limited to 2 carries last week against Auburn and benched after a fumble, seemed to be the feature back early on against the Wildcats. He averaged 3 yards on 7 carries. Is this the same guy who led Penn State in rushing a year ago?
John Lovett, the transfer from Baylor who didn’t play at all in the Lions’ first 2 games, finished with 11 carries and 45 yards. Is he now the lead back?
Regardless of who’s getting the ball, the common thread is that no one is running it effectively. No PSU back has a 100-yard game. The team has only topped the century mark once, racking up 240 yards on the ground against Ball State in Week 2. The 3 best individual rushing totals of the year all came against the Cardinals: Cain had 69 yards, Lee 68 and Clifford 66. Outside of those, no PSU player has even reached 50 yards in a game.
“It’s still super concerning to me that we can’t move people off the ball when we need to, because you’re going to have to,” former Penn State nose tackle Brandon Noble said last week on The Obligatory PSU Podcast. “As some point — against Iowa, against Ohio State, against Michigan State — you’re going to have to move some tough dudes off the line of scrimmage to win a football game. We’re not there yet. That’s the only glaring weakness right now — if there’s a bad grade to give, it would be run blocking. Everything else, I’m loving right now, but that bothers me.”
I doubt Saturday’s film will ease Noble’s concern. Cain’s lone run did convert a fourth down, the first time the Lions did so in 4 tries to that point this season. But the situation was set up because Lee gained only 1 yard on 3rd-and-2, and the Lions converted only 3 of 12 third downs — lowering their season conversion rate to 35.4 percent.
“I still think we’ve got to take some strides in the running game,” Franklin said at a mid-week media session. “I think we can be better in the running game, and have the ability to be better in the running game.”
Penn State didn’t make those strides against a 30.5-point underdog. It’s fair to point out that Villanova entered the game with the 2nd-best run defense in the FCS ranks. But it’s also fair to point out that tight end/wildcat quarterback Tyler Warren has twice as many rushing TDs (2) as all of the running backs combined over the past 2 games — and Warren has only 3 carries on the season.
It’s possible that this is simply a tradeoff that comes with a spread offense, which Penn State under Franklin is committed to employing. In hiring Yurcich away from Texas, Franklin doubled down on the approach that sparked PSU back to prominence when Trace McSorley and OC Joe Moorhead spearheaded a wide-open attack in 2016-17. And it’s hard to argue with what the Clifford-Yurcich tag team is doing.
In recruiting, Penn State seems to be targeting linemen more suited to pass protection than run blocking. Of the 15 OLs on the roster, all are at least 6-foot-3. As Noble pointed out earlier in the year, long, tall guys with strong hands excel at pass protection, and that is a very different skill than run blocking, which requires lowering one’s center of gravity — low man wins.
After replacing 2 NFL Draft picks, this year’s front five remains a work in progress under 2nd-year line coach Phil Trautwein. Four starters have been locked in since the start of the season, led by left tackle Rasheed Walker. Eric Wilson, a transfer from Harvard, seems to have settle in a left guard.
As long as they keep giving Clifford time, Yurcich can work with that. He’ll eventually find ways to scheme some running lanes into existence, much as Moorhead did for Saquon Barkley. If opposing defenses keep daring Clifford to throw deep, they’ll eventually learn he’s on a bit of a hot streak and have to adjust accordingly.
Meanwhile, Yurcich is trying to find solutions. He has Penn State running plays under center for the first time in the Franklin era, something very new for linemen who’ve only known the shotgun setup previously. He’s putting tight ends in the backfield, sometimes even more than one. The linemen are learning new formations and schemes along with the rest of the offense.
Blasting straight ahead might never be the short-yardage, ball-control solution for this year’s offense. Will Levis was the guy to do that last year, and he’s now the full-time quarterback at Kentucky. Right now, Penn State doesn’t have that guy or those plays.
Yurcich might have to find a work-around.
But you can’t fault Penn State fans of certain generations for thinking 1 or 2 yards and a cloud of dust shouldn’t be too much to ask.