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Penn State Continues To ‘Invest’ In Run Game In Win Over Maryland

It’s no secret Penn State football hasn’t been able to run the football well this season.

Whether you want to blame the offensive line, the playcalling, or the running backs themselves, the Nittany Lions just haven’t been able to get the job done on the ground. But Penn State’s rushers clearly took a step forward against Maryland, and it paid big dividends in the win.

“We continue to invest in [the run game],” James Franklin said after the game. “It’s still not where we want it to be, that’s one of the things I tried to do on the headset with Mike [Yurcich]: remind him to mix the run in there.”

Penn State kept a similar run/pass balance to previous games — it threw 47 passes and attempted 33 rushes — but it saw a huge bump in rushing efficiency.

The Nittany Lions gained just 33 yards on the ground against Ohio State, good for a dismal 1.1 yards per carry. Saturday’s game against the Terps was a different story, as Penn State’s three main backs — Noah Cain, Keyvone Lee, and John Lovett — logged 109 yards at a 4.36 yard-per-carry clip. The team averaged 2.8 yards per rush if you factor in Clifford’s sacks.

Lee led the way with 50 yards on eight carries, which was good for an extremely impressive 6.3 yards per carry. The sophomore looked more confident and stayed away from the jitterbug east/west running that failed him earlier in the season.

“The sky’s the limit for him,” Cain said about Lee after the game. “His size and speed, he hasn’t put it all together yet, and I think once he does he’s going to be real special.”

Cain had a bounce-back game of his own against Maryland, logging 35 yards on 10 carries. Ever since missing the 2020 season with an injury, the Baton Rouge native just hasn’t looked himself. He added after the game that he’s still trying to get back to “the old me.”

Penn State averaged a Big Ten third-worst rushing yards heading into this matchup. Although it actually fell below that season average of 108.1 yards per game, it was easy to see against Maryland that things are slowly continuing to come together.

The run game is still far from good, but the “investment” Franklin mentioned is starting to pay off. No matter how poorly you’re performing in the trenches, you can’t just throw the ball 100 times in a game. So every extra yard Penn State can squeeze out of its backs on running downs is extra important.

Maryland loaded the box against Penn State a lot too, often dropping a deep safety in favor of cover 0 looks. Keeping the Terps honest with the run allowed the Nittany Lions’ speedsters like Jahan Dotson to take advantage of these coverage looks.

“Getting the run game involved is huge for our offense and our team,” Clifford said. “When you hit a couple of big explosive runs, it really puts a damper on a defense to keep that balance. I was proud of our running game, we’ve been working on it so hard.”

Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks agreed after the game that it’s much harder to guard an offense that can “keep you guessing” with an effective passing and rushing attack. Running the football well makes things like play-action passes and screen attempts more effective.

The Nittany Lions may not be at that level yet, but it’s still a work in progress.

The rushing attack really has been a project all year long. It was clear from the get-go that things weren’t working well, and Penn State has been tweaking things relentlessly since then. That’s been a major theme of the season, especially amid the Nittany Lions’ three-game skid.

This team will probably never win a game purely on the ground like how Illinois did to the Nittany Lions a few weeks back. But, if you’re Mike Yurcich, you’ve got to take every extra inch you can get. Penn State might never put it all together, but it can continue to make impressive and important strides forward.

“We haven’t been living up to our standards and our expectations,” Cain said. “But we just kept trusting the process. Every game isn’t going to be perfect, every game isn’t going to be run-heavy, every game isn’t going to be pass-heavy…it’s all about how you respond to the criticism and we’ve just got to keep getting better.”

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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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