Noah Cain Makes Case For More Carries
Head coach James Franklin has stuck to his plan of rotating four running backs through the first five games of Penn State football’s season.
One member of this quartet, however, is beginning to stand out from the rest. Over the course of his young career, Noah Cain has already proven why his head coach needs to give him more opportunities carrying the football.
The freshman rushed for a career-high 105 yards on 12 carries in Penn State’s 35-7 win over Purdue last Saturday. He also scored the Nittany Lions’ only touchdown of an otherwise dull offensive second half and averaged 8.8 yards per carry.
Aside from this solid performance, Cain has been a consistent option at running back throughout this season. His 208 total yards on the ground make him the second-leading rusher, second only to Journey Brown’s 217. And he leads the group with five total touchdowns.
In fact, Cain has scored a touchdown in every game this season except against Maryland. Cain’s biggest touchdown of the year came against Pitt when he reached pay dirt on a 13-yard rush with 5:44 remaining in the third quarter. His score ended up being the winner, as it gave Penn State a 17-10 lead that it wouldn’t relinquish.
Aside from Brown, the freshman running back has been Penn State’s most impressive option out of the backfield. His nose for the end zone and ability to consistently pick up yards certainly make him standout from his counterparts Ricky Slade and Devyn Ford.
Although Ford leads all running backs with 7.6 yards per attempt, much of that is skewed by his 81-yard touchdown rush that came in week one garbage time against Idaho. Cain, on the other hand, only has 5.9 yards per carry, but has rushed nine more times than Ford. His longest run of the year is only 27 yards, but he’s been able to constantly pick up positive yardage on each of his carries.
Franklin is well aware of Cain’s ability to do this.
“[Noah] will get a 16-yarder. He’ll get a 12-yarder, a four-yarder, and a three-yarder,” Franklin said. “He’s just very consistent, he’s always falling forward.”
Fellow running back Ricky Slade hasn’t had the same success as Cain this year. After playing the role of featured back behind Miles Sanders last season and rushing for 257 yards and six touchdowns, the sophomore currently has only 51 yards on the ground and two touchdowns in 2019.
Looking only at the season’s box scores, you might think that Cain has dominated time in the backfield. He leads all running backs with 35 carries on the season, and got 12 attempts in Saturday’s win over Purdue. But Cain’s biggest issue remains earning playing time in Franklin’s tightly contested rotation. He has been forced to wait his turn.
The freshman got double-digit carries for the first time this season against Purdue. This was the most he had wracked since his nine against Idaho — albeit most of them late in the game. He only had one against Buffalo, six against Pitt, and seven against Maryland.
Cain has specifically struggled to see early action. The freshman had first-half carries against Purdue, Maryland, and Idaho, but none against Pitt or Buffalo. So far, the majority of his carries have come in the second half.
While it’s understandable that Franklin wants to utilize each of the talented running backs he has, he’ll eventually be forced to rely on the most consistent member of the group. He even mentioned Cain’s name in discussing some of the top backs on the roster after Purdue’s game.
“Obviously, after today you could make some arguments to put Noah at the top of the depth chart,” Franklin said. “I still think we’re going to play four guys, but there could be a guy that’s the lead starter. I don’t want to sit here and proclaim a decision has been made before we discuss it with the staff and the players.”
Heading into what should be a gritty defensive battle against Iowa Saturday night, the Nittany Lions will need to have a strong run game. If they can stick with Cain and Brown as two of the premier backs, the offense should be able to produce, which, with this defense, is all the team might need.
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“To any current underclassmen reading this: learn the fight song, cheer loud, and tailgate early. You’re lucky to be a Nittany Lion.”
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