Anybody who has watched Penn State even casually throughout 2021 knows that the team has trouble running the ball.
It’s why Sean Clifford threw the ball 52 times against Ohio State on Halloween night, and why Clifford chucked it 34 times in the dreadful 9OT loss to Illinois at Beaver Stadium Oct. 23, despite the quarterback still not being 100 percent, and although Illinois never led for a second of regulation.
Throughout the Lions’ three losses, Penn State ran the ball 91 times for 202 yards, an average of 2.2 yards per carry. In the Big 10, Penn State’s offense is second to last in yards-per-game at 106.4, leading only Purdue.
What’s just as obvious as Penn State struggles running the ball is that Penn State doesn’t have a clear bell cow. The man who gets the most touches depends on the week.
At Iowa, Keyvone Lee had 10 carries, which tied with backup quarterback Ta’Quan Robertson, who came in after an injury to Clifford, for the team lead. Against Illinois, Noah Cain led Penn State with 11 carries for 43 yards, and at Ohio State, it was John Lovett who ran the ball the most times for Penn State, with 13 carries that netted just 20 yards.
While that’s just a three-game sample, Penn State’s full-season totals still do little to indicate who the Nittany Lions’ primary running back is, if anybody. Cain leads the team with 93 carries but trails Lee in yards per carry average by nearly two yards (Lee averages 5.1 YPC, Cain 3.2).
Lee is second on the team with 56 carries, which trails Cain by 37 and is also five runs behind Clifford, a quarterback not known for his legs.
Saturday’s game against Maryland mirrored what 2021 has been generally for Lee. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry– Cain averaged 3.5– but Cain got the ball 10 times to Lee’s eight. Lee led Penn State with 50 yards on the ground.
After breaking down Penn State’s runners by basic football numbers, here are what advanced analytics say, courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
Apologies to Devyn Ford, who only has 11 carries in 2021
Going off the traditional stats, it seems clear that Lovett is behind Cain and Lee. His 48 carries are third amongst Penn State’s running backs, as are his 160 yards— 127 less than Lee.
What’s interesting, however, is that snap count. According to PFF, Lovett has been on the field for 172 of Penn State’s plays, which is well behind Cain (293) but ahead of Lee (166.)
This is likely due to Lovett’s blocking ability. Pro Football Focus grades him the highest of Penn State’s three main backs in both run blocking (70.2) and pass blocking (38.2).
Lovett hasn’t matched the success he had running the ball at Baylor, where he finished 16th on the all-time rushing list, but he’s been helpful to Penn State in ways that won’t appear on a traditional box score, which is likely why his snap count is where it is.
As alluded to earlier, Cain is the closest thing Penn State had to a featured running back. He’s been on the field for 121 more snaps than the next runner and leads the team in yards, carries and touchdowns with four.
But in Penn State’s nine games, Cain has only led Penn State in carries in four of them and has been their leading rusher in just as many.
Looking at advanced stats, Cain has the lowest total offensive grade at 64.1 and the lowest total running grade at 67.3. His blocking doesn’t look any better, as his run blocking (38.8) and pass blocking (24.8) are both graded lower than Levitt and Lee.
Cain is, however, ahead of the other two backs in the passing game. He leads Penn State’s running backs in receptions (16) and yards (105) and is the Nittany Lions’ highest-graded receiver among the three at 64.2.
After a promising freshman season where Cain scored eight touchdowns and averaged more than five yards per carry, helping Penn State to an 11-2 season, he hasn’t fully recovered since his 2020 year ended after just three carries due to an ankle injury.
To me, Lee is the most intriguing of Penn State’s backs and maybe one of the more intriguing players on the roster.
As a true freshman in 2020, Lee was a big boost for a platoon reeling from the losses of Cain and Journey Brown. In just three starts, he rushed for 438 yards and averaged nearly five yards a carry. Pro Football Focus graded him at 75.9 overall.
This season, his yards per carry have been even higher at 5.1, and he’s turned in some of Penn State’s best rushing performances of 2021. In the home opener against Ball State, Lee rushed for 68 yards on just eight attempts and picked up 74 in the same amount of touches three weeks later against Indiana.
The advanced numbers are kind to Lee as well. Of Penn State’s runners, he has the highest overall offensive grade at 70.2. and the highest running grade at 73.2.
Against Maryland, Lee averaged 6.3 yards per carry and had an overall grade of 71.8, his third-highest of the season and highest since the Indiana game Oct. 2. He also had his highest snap count at 36, which was 10 more than Cain and 15 more than Lovett.
Overall, Lee is the sixth highest-graded player on Penn State’s offense and fourth-highest among skill position players, not counting Ford, who’s been limited. Last season, Lee’s best game— 135 yards and a PFF grade of 74.4– came at Michigan. It shouldn’t come as a surprise if Lee plays a role against the Wolverines again this week.
Overall, Penn State’s three main tailbacks rank 222 (Lee) 293 (Lovett) and 304 (Cain) in college football according to PFF. Whatever the reason is, both traditional and advanced numbers agree that the Nittany Lions haven’t run the ball well in 2021.