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Penn State Rushing Attack On Pace To Be Among Worst In School History

Entering the 2014 season, the Penn State rushing attack looked poised to be a consistent and reliable bunch. Veteran running backs Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton, and Akeel Lynch all returned to the team, forming a stout bunch that hoped to improve upon an impressive 2,150 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2013.

Belton and Zwinak, both seniors, were among the 53 players named to the pre-season watch list for the Doak Walker award, which is given annually to the nation’s best running back. Christian Hackenberg showed the nation his poise and big-play ability as a true freshman, forcing defenses to prepare for a much-improved Penn State offense. The running game, it seemed, would only stand to benefit from Hackenberg’s development.

That, obviously, has not happened. In fact, Penn State’s 2014 rushing attack is on pace to be one of the worst in school history.

But the trouble began in the off-season. After starting guard Miles Dieffenbach went down in the summer with a knee injury, an already thin offensive line was spread even thinner. With Dieffenbach sidelined indefinitely, senior Donovan Smith remained as the only returning starter, anchoring the left side of the line at tackle. With nowhere else to turn, a crop of fresh, inexperienced faces were thrust into action well before they were ready.

It’s no secret the line has struggled mightily through the first five games. Hackenberg has been sacked 14 times, a mark that ranks 107th in the nation. Penn State’s coveted QB is being taken down on roughly 7 percent of his dropbacks.

And yet as bad as the offensive line has been in pass protection, the running game might be even worse. Of the 125 FBS teams, Penn State’s season rushing total of 505 yards ranks 105th.

That’s an average of 3.1 yards per carry. The unit is averaging just a hair over 100 yards a game (101 to be exact), with most of the yards coming in a 48-7 blowout over UMass that saw the Nittany Lions trample the Minutemen to the tune of 228 yards rushing. Remove the UMass game from the sample, and Penn State is averaging 69.3 yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry.

To put those numbers in some perspective, I compared the team’s per game rushing average and yards per carry to those of past Nittany Lion teams. Looking back to 1950 (rushing stats were not available for Penn State during previous years), the 2014 rushing unit’s outlook is grisly.

For comparison, here are some of the most ineffective rushing teams of the last 64 years:

  • In 1952, under the direction of third-year head coach Rip Engle, Penn State finished the season with a per-game average of 131 yards on 44.7 attempts, an average of 2.9 yards per carry — the worst in school history. Bob Pollard rushed for 341 yards on 110 carries, an abysmal 3.1 yards per carry that even Toby Gerhart could scoff at.
  • The 1957 squad finished 6-3, but the running game had little to do with the team’s success. The Nittany Lions averaged 185.9 yards per game, a respectable average, but needed 55.8 attempts to do so. The team average of 3.3 yards per carry is the second-worst mark in school history behind the 1952 team.
  • In 2001, during the beginning of the period referred to by fans as the “dark years,” Penn State rushed for 119.7 yards per game on 34.8 attempts, a collective 3.4 yards per carry. Eric McCoo lead the team in rushing with 265 yards, while quarterback Zack Mills ranked second on the team in rushing attempts. The lone bright spot was junior Larry Johnson, who gained 337 yards on 4.7 yards per carry and would go on to set the team’s single season rushing record the following season.
  • The 2003 season is unquestionably the worst season in Penn State’s football history, with the team finishing a sobering 3-9 and 1-7 in conference play. The only wins that season came against Temple, Kent State, and an overmatched Indiana Hoosiers team that was somehow so much worse than Penn State that the Nittany Lions beat it by 45 points. Predictably, the rushing attack that season was far from ideal, ending the season with an average of 122 yards per game on 33.1 attempts for a per-carry average of 3.7 yards. Michael Robinson, who would become the team’s quarterback the following season and carry the Nittany Lions to an incredible 11-1 record and Orange Bowl victory in 2005-06, led the team in carries with 107.

As you can see, this year’s per game average of 101 yards ranks dead last among the past six decades of Penn State football, while the 3.1 yards per carry mark is only slightly ahead of the 2.9 yards per carry set by the 1952 team.

Penn State only rushed the ball 14 times against Northwestern in last week’s 29-6 loss, but it’s not hard to see why John Donovan and the offense might be so wary to tote the rock. This rushing game is historically ineffective and needs to improve if it doesn’t want to go down as one of the worst units in the history of the program.

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About the Author

CJ Doon

CJ is a senior journalism major from Long Island and Onward State's Sports Editor. He is a third-generation Penn Stater, and his grandfather wrestled for the university back in the 1930s under coach Charlie “Doc” Speidel. Besides writing, one of his favorite activities is making sea puns. You can follow him on Twitter @CJDoon, and send your best puns to [email protected], just for the halibut.

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