Franklin assesses Noah Cain, PSU's backs, ground game, ahead of Iowa
The Penn State football program has spent the last few weeks talking about a rushing attack that isn't succeeding as much as the Nittany Lions would like it to.
It was again a topic of conversation on Tuesday, as James Franklin held his weekly news conference ahead of the team's trip to Iowa, where it will need to "establish the run," the head coach said, during a Big Ten crossover and top-five matchup at Kinnick Stadium.
"We were able to take a step last week with our run game," Franklin said. That's going to be really important, not just for our offense's success, but also to help our defense out with time of possession.
"This is going to be one of those types of games where we're going to have to grind it out and help our defense out based on who they are as an entire organization, but specifically their offense."
As for that step forward, Penn State rushed for 209 yards in a win over Indiana at Beaver Stadium last Saturday. Keyvone Lee led the way for the backs with eight carries for 74 yards, John Lovett had 10 for 41, Noah Cain 11 for 23, and Devyn Ford had one for 12. Quarterback Sean Clifford, then, picked up the rest.
It's fair to say that the performance both from the backs and the offense collectively was better against the Hoosiers on the ground, but it's also not crazy to suggest that it will need to be better against the Hawkeyes in a challenging road environment.
To take a closer look at whether or not that will happen, we'll break down three answers Franklin gave to questions about the ball carriers and run game in general.
Question No. 1: Overall evaluation and snap count thoughts
The rushing attempt chart is topped by Cain (59), Lee (28), Lovett (23), and Ford (10), and the snap count is mostly the same, though Lovett is about 10 ahead of Lee.
Is that how Franklin envisioned it going before the season began?
"I think their rotation has probably played out the way I thought it would," Franklin said. "Obviously, you'd love for somebody to really jump out and say, 'I'm going to get the majority of the reps and the other guys are going to rotate in.' I wouldn't say that that's necessarily happened yet, and you could have both kind of ends of that right? You can have three guys that are playing at a really high level and you want to keep them all involved, or you want to have one guy that kind of takes control of the room and the other guys are complementary pieces. Both are fine.
"It's somewhat similar to how. I think I probably thought we'd have a little bit more production, but that's not just on them, that's all of us."
That final part of the quote is also reflective of the overall evaluation after five weeks.
"I don't know if you can talk about the running game or the running backs on their own, it's all of it," Franklin said. "I think, in pass protection, we've been good, I think, in getting them the ball out of the backfield. I think we can do a little bit more of that. I think there are times where they can get out a little bit quicker so we can get the ball into their hands. I think there are times where we'd like Sean to check it down a little bit more to the running backs. But, in those areas, pretty good."
As for the run part of the run game?
"I'd like to see, at times, us be more physical, and pound up in there and get the four or five yards and trust it," Franklin said.
It's something the eighth-year leader of the Lions has said previously this year, as well, which again signifies its importance after an unbeaten start.
Question No. 2: Is Noah Cain playing through something?
Some wondered during the Indiana game, and maybe even prior to that, if starting tailback Noah Cain was 100 percent after he missed almost all of the 2020 season due to injury.
Franklin, unsurprisingly, did not tip his hand but did say that the third-year player is working through things that every oft-used member of the roster is at this point of the season.
"I think Noah can do even more," Franklin said. "We've seen flashes, all of us have seen flashes, of Noah doing some really good things, but again that's all of it, that's tight ends, and that's the o-line, that's the running backs, that's the coaches, that's the quarterback, you know, not running into looks that we shouldn't be running into when we have relief throws for extra guys in the box and things like that, whether it's RPOs and, and we're putting somebody in conflict and they're more of a run player than they are in pass protection, it's all of it. I think we've all seen what Noah has the ability to do."
Next came an answer about those lingering health questions.
"In terms of what he's working through, that's part of football," Franklin said. "Everybody this time of the year, with the competition that we've played, is working through things and Noah always approaches those things the right way. He lives in the training room.
"Noah, whether he's got a bump or bruise or what not, whether it's rehab or prehab, he's been great. So, we expect him to be full-go on Saturday, and I know he'll do everything he possibly can to make sure that's the case."
That's good news because the Nittany Lions will need everyone at full speed on Saturday, which leads us to the final question.
Pros and cons of a rotation
A lot has been said in a positive way about the fact that Penn State can play three and even four running backs in a game. It keeps all of them fresh, of course, but the snap counts also indicate that that one guy hasn't completely separated himself from the pack, which exemplifies the pros and cons of having such a deep rotation.
"I think the benefit is the opportunity to keep three backs fresh and healthy for a complete game, and for a complete season," Franklin said. "The drawbacks, obviously, is depending on the type of backs that you have, sometimes they need to get into a rhythm, and I get that as well, but I think there's also the aspect that until somebody steps up and shows that they are the guy, it's hard for us, based on what we have seen at this stage, to just crown somebody. We'd love for that to happen.
"I'm really okay with either scenario, but you'd like to be able to have three backs that you feel like you can win with because you want to keep them fresh and healthy for four quarters and for a complete season."
There are two main takeaways from all of this. One is that clearly none of the backs have played well enough to be the guy, which is fine and possibly preferred, but maybe not completely ideal.
The second is that, while it might be easy to just say running back A isn't doing this well or running back B could have done that better, ultimately the rushing attack will only succeed when every part of Mike Yurcich's offense does its job consistently enough. I
t has happened in spurts, but it must occur drive in and drive out for this Nittany Lions ground game to reach its best form ahead of both the Iowa game and the second half of the season.
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