How Penn State’s Running Game Can Fuel Its Offense
Last Saturday, we all witnessed the Penn State Nittany Lions absolutely throttle UMass to the tune of 48-7. Even grislier than the final score, the Nittany Lions also out rushed the Minutemen, 228 yards to 3 (!!).
There are many ways one can digest this information. Yes, the UMass front seven doesn’t even come close to resembling a Big Ten caliber unit, but 228 yards is 228 yards no matter how you frame it. This outburst of rushing yardage was the first sign of life the run game has showed all year, and its presence might be the catalyst the offense needed.
In the first three games of the season, the Penn State rushing attack managed only 227 yards, while the passing game compiled 1,082 yards. This disparity in yardage is a clear indication that quarterback Christian Hackenberg has been saddled with carrying the entire offense on his shoulders, with little support. Take a look at those first few games. When Hackenberg was on, the offense was able to have a strong performance. When Hackenberg struggled (25-44 against Rutgers), the offense stalled and couldn’t get any momentum going. Saturday’s 228-yard performance changed the offensive dynamic completely. Though Hackenberg struggled throughout the first half, the potent play of the running backs enabled the Nittany Lions to churn out big gains and put points up on the board. Credit the offensive line for hitting its assignments and opening holes as well, because any success on the ground starts up front.
As a result of this, Hackenberg was counted on less, and he wasn’t taking as many risky downfield shots as he normally would when strapped with the burden of carrying the offense. Instead, he was allowed to manage the game and let the ground game steal the show.
If the trio of Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak, and Akeel Lynch can replicate the performance it had on Saturday, the source of Penn State’s offensive success won’t have to solely be the arm of Hackenberg. Now, let’s not forget that it was only one very impressive showing, but the fact that the unit flashed the ability to kill a defense on the ground opens up plenty of possibilities. Instead of relying on Hackenberg to make big plays despite opposing defenses knowing what’s coming, the offense can now mix up the playcalling and keep defenders on their toes. With a gauntlet of Big Ten games approaching, the running game couldn’t have picked a better time to click.
Running the football in the Big Ten is imperative to success. For example, take teams such as Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Michigan State. All of these teams excel at pounding defenses on the ground. Successfully running the football at a team’s front seven will wear the unit out physically and mentally, which allows the offense to capitalize and move the chains. This becomes especially important in the fourth quarter, when stamina and fatigue begin to come into play. Nebraska showcased this last weekend against Miami, when Ameer Abdullah ran all over the Hurricane defense for 229 yards and two scores, in a game that was ultimately decided by 10 points.
Yes, all three schools feature a high-caliber running back, but Penn State (arguably) has three.
“I think the run game is more of a physicality thing if you can run the ball and drain an opponent out,” said Lynch after Saturday’s win. “If you can keep running the ball and you can run down the clock, especially in a game where you’re winning, it helps a lot.”
The success of the run game on Saturday does not necessarily mean that the team needs to adopt a ground-and-pound mentality going forward. Hackenberg will still be counted on to manage games and play like one of the best young quarterbacks in the nation. However, Hackenberg will be able to rely on guys like Belton and Zwinak to pick up sizable chunks of yardage.
This added dynamic gives Penn State a significantly better chance against Big Ten foes such as Ohio State and Michigan State, two teams who could potentially stand in the way of a Big Ten title run. With offensive weapons such as Geno Lewis and DaeSean Hamilton, the Nittany Lion offense will have plenty of playmakers available at its disposal.
Hopefully, last Saturday wasn’t a fluke against a bad team, and the unit has gelled. If that is the case, then strap in, because the fireworks are about to begin.