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Penn State Trying To ‘Complete The Puzzle’ In Run Game Ahead Of Iowa Showdown

When something isn’t working quite right, it can sometimes be a challenge to pinpoint the issue. In the case of Penn State football’s run game, the Nittany Lions just can’t seem to hit a groove on the ground for some reason

The reactionary response would be to attack a certain back, like Noah Cain, or toss blame at the offensive line as a whole. But, in reality, football is a complicated game. Sometimes, a lot of little things are going wrong and teams can simply be out of sync.

“I don’t know if you can talk about the running game or the running backs on their own. It’s all of it,” head coach James Franklin said Tuesday. “I’d like to see, at times, us be more physical and pound it up there and get the four and five yards and trust it.”

This isn’t to say Penn State’s rushing attack has been wildly unsuccessful this year. Despite missing basically the entire Villanova game, Cain’s racked up 187 yards and three touchdowns this season. Keyvone Lee is right behind him, totaling 174 yards on a 6.4 yard-per-carry clip.

The Nittany Lions are towards the bottom of the Big Ten on rushing statistics alone, but they’ve been able to find other ways to win games. No. 3 Iowa, Penn State’s week six opponent, is in a similar situation, sporting a strong defense and weaker rushing attack. It’s one of three Big Ten teams below Penn State in the rushing yards per game category.

Ja’Juan Seider’s crew’s struggles came to a head in the Villanova game when Penn State managed only 2.4 yards-per-rush against the FCS team. Even Sean Clifford, who usually picks up a good chunk on the ground, finished with a net negative eight yards on eight carries.

“We’re going to need to get that whole group going because I think they’re very talented,” Franklin said following the win over the Wildcats. “We need to be better at the running back position, O-line position. I thought today specifically in the running game and the tight end position.”

Penn State made its adjustments following its game against Villanova and was much more successful against Indiana, averaging five yards per carry. While this number is slightly inflated by big runs from Lee and Clifford, the Nittany Lions clearly did a better job against a better team.

Still, Penn State isn’t running the football like it usually does, and it’s not running the football like how most fans and coaches know it can.

An impressive rushing attack isn’t necessary to be successful, but it does create more opportunities on offense. If a defense doesn’t respect your running backs, they’ll drop back in coverage and make passing the ball a nightmare.

Despite pointing to areas of improvement amongst Penn State’s running backs, tight ends, linemen, and coaches, Franklin has said he’s “satisfied” with his team’s overall rushing performance. The skipper is trying to walk a line between giving his team credit and always trying to improve.

Offensive lineman Rasheed Walker agreed with the general sentiment that Penn State still has steps it can take on the ground.

“In the running game, we’ve had our flashes. We can be more consistent…,” Walker said Wednesday. “There’s nothing dramatic that needs to be changed. There’s just one or two things needed to complete the puzzle.”

Again, it’s hard to pick out what those one or two things are. Maybe the tight ends need to do a better job picking up their assignments. Maybe the running backs need to focus on hitting holes hard and running north to south instead of east to west.

Offensive lineman Caedan Wallace pointed to everyone needing to do their “1/11th” and said Penn State focused on physicality following the Villanova game. Besides, Franklin said after the win over the Wildcats that the Nittany Lions had a bad week of practice. Maybe they just needed to up the intensity to be more successful against the Hoosiers.

It takes time to grow an offense, especially under a new coordinator. Perhaps Penn State’s rushing struggles are just a matter of things not clicking yet. Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich said this might be the case.

“We need to run the football better…,” Yurcich said Thursday. “Our running backs are still coming along — they’re definitely good enough, there’s no question about it. For whatever reason, the rhythm hasn’t been to where it needs to be, to be elite.”

That word “elite” might be familiar to some of the Nittany Lions faithful who remember the Ohio State game in 2018. Yurcich’s sentiment here is similar to Franklin’s was three years ago. Penn State has a great running game, but it needs to take another step to become elite.

The talent and the scheme are obviously there, but the team just needs to put it all together.

To beat Iowa, which, quite frankly, has an elite defense, the Nittany Lions need to run the football effectively. The rhythm hasn’t been there yet, but it’s going to need to be if Penn State wants to beat the Hawkeyes and then go on to make a run at the Big Ten title.

The Nittany Lions don’t need to be a “three yards and a cloud of dust” team to win games. They’ve done it through the air before, and they’ll do it again. But, figuring out the run game would be a very positive sign of things fully clicking under a new coordinator.

“It takes everything, and when it doesn’t go well, it’s usually related to a combination of things, and there’s so much to it,” Yurcich said. “That’s why it’s such a beautiful game”

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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