Without junior running back Noah Cain for much of the Villanova game, a game in which the Nittany Lions didn’t need to risk Cain’s health after a hard-fought win against Auburn, the Penn State running game struggled.
It’s nothing new for Penn State this season, struggling to run the ball to the point of being the worst rushing attack in the Big 10. It hasn’t hindered the Lions yet, notching two good wins against then-ranked Wisconsin and Auburn, but how much longer can redshirt senior quarterback Sean Clifford be relied upon to carry the squad?
One-third of the way into the season, it’s time to accept the fact that Penn State’s rushing attack won’t be a consistent strength this season. The offensive line is shaky so far, struggling to create holes for the Lions’ backs and being worn down in run blocking situations, and Cain hasn’t quite looked like himself yet after returning from last season’s leg injury.
However, Penn State has played some tough defenses to begin the season. Wisconsin boasts the top-ranked run defense in the country, holding opposing teams to just 69 yards on 68 attempts and 23.1 yards per game. Auburn is 26th in the nation in run defense, holding opposing teams under 100 yards per game.
Of course, you’d probably expect Penn State to rack up yards against Ball State and Villanova, and that’s half right. 248 yards on 48 carries against Ball State is a respectable five yards per carry, but even with Cain sidelined against Villanova, 80 carries on 34 attempts isn’t good enough.
Cain has just 164 yards on 48 carries this season, 3.4 yards per attempt, and Penn State as a whole only has 454 yards at 3.4 yards per attempt. So, how does the Lions’ rushing attack improve?
Well, Indiana is a great test for Penn State in establishing a rushing attack. The Hoosier boast a run defense that ranks 35th in the country, allowing 110 yards per game, so the duo of Clifford and Cain should be to complement one another in finally putting together a true breakout performance.
The most important thing is keeping Cain healthy, and with nearly two weeks off since the Auburn game, he should be good to go coming into a stretch of eight conference games. However, it’s clear he’ll only go as far as his offensive line will take him. Like any running back, a bad offensive line handicaps just how good a playmaker can be.
The Penn State offensive line features a veteran mix of talented, athletic big men that have all the tools to be able to coagulate into a wall that can help Cain back to his freshman highs. It hasn’t happened yet but with redshirt center Mike Miranda flanked by veterans in redshirt senior Rasheed Walker, redshirt junior guard Juice Scruggs and redshirt sophomore Caeden Wallace, the pieces are in place for a rushing attack that should at least be a positive for the Lions this season.
It appears like Clifford has taken a step forward this season, completing 86-of-120 throws (good for 72% completion) for 1,158 yards and eight touchdowns to just two interceptions. A good chunk of that came against Villanova, to be fair, but he’s proved capable of guiding the Lions past Wisconsin and Auburn.
The Penn State passing offense has excelled this season, ranking in the Top 5 of all significant passing stats. Senior Jahan Dotson and sophomore Parker Washington have formed one of the best wide receiver duos in the Big 10, both ranked inside the Top 10 in the conference in catches, receiving yards and touchdowns.
The Penn State defense has played well, replacing key losses with youngsters stepping up, and limited opponents to just 15 points per game. The yardage totals might not jump off the page, but the Lions have — most importantly — kept opponents out of the end zone.
As the fourth-ranked team in the country, this is a deep, talented team that’s got some tough games in the weeks ahead.
A matchup on the road against No. 5 Iowa is the first test, a Hawkeyes’ defense holding opposing teams under 200 yards passing and 100 yards rushing. No. 11 Ohio State and No. 17 Michigan State will also host the Nittany Lions this year, and the Lions will host No. 14 Michigan in Happy Valley.
The toughest part of the schedule is yet to come, and to weather to the onslaught of ranked Big 10 teams, Clifford and the passing attack need to be supplemented by an offensive line that can pave the way for more than 3.4 yards per carry.