After Penn State’s 21-17 loss to Michigan Nov. 13, Keyvone Lee stood beyond the playing surface of a cold Beaver Stadium, patiently answering questions after falling just short of a win that could have turned the 2021 season around.
Optimistically, Lee said that Penn State, who had just lost its fourth game in five tries, had the potential to finish the season playing better football than any team in the nation.
At the time of Lee’s comments, the Nittany Lions had two regular-season games left plus the bowl game. Well, the Lions lost two of those three, finishing 7-6 and not ending on the high note that Lee hoped for.
Although the Lions finished with a whimper, the sophomore tailback is hardly to blame.
Lee made the most of his opportunities. In Penn State’s last three games (including today’s Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas), he rushed for 155 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
For the 2021 season, Lee rushed for 495 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per rush. This followed up a promising freshman campaign, where lee rushed for 438 yards in just eight games and averaged 4.9 yards per attempt.
A 134-yard performance at the Big House in a win over Michigan last season looked like it could be a springboard for Lee to becoming a star. It hasn’t quite happened that way. More than a year later, that is still the most recent game in which a Penn State runner has gone over 100 yards.
Critics are justified in asking– with a struggling quarterback and an offense that’s been under siege for weeks– why Lee only got four carries against Arkansas.
On the surface, it’s confusing. Lee picked up 35 yards on those four carries, good for an 8.8 average. Lee averaged nearly nine yards per rush and only got to run the ball four times. That’s odd.
Beneath the surface, it makes even less sense.
Not only did Mike Yurcich’s offense rely primarily on Sean Clifford’s arm– 32 passes compared to 28 rushes– 12 of those rushes were from Clifford himself and another two were by backup QB Christian Veilleux, who came into the game for the Lions’s last offensive series.
Lee didn’t even have the most carries amongst Penn State running backs. Noah Cain– who himself averaged 5.6 yards per carry– touched the ball five times to Lee’s four.
To be fair, not every quarterback run is by design. But it’s also fair to say that Sean Clifford, a man who is mobile but not known for his legs, should never carry the ball three times more than a back of Lee’s caliber.
Perhaps most confusing is that Penn State abandoned Lee right as it looked like he was in a groove. On Penn State’s second and, ultimately, final scoring drive, the Lions marched 61 yards before settling on a Jake Pinegar field goal. Lee accounted for 40 of those yards, with a 25-yard run and 15-yard catch and run.
When Pinegar’s field goal went through, there was 5:19 left in the first half.
Lee’s next touch came with 13:20 to play in the fourth quarter.
The head-scratching doesn’t stop there.
Lee’s fourth and final run in the afternoon– that he waited well over a quarter to get– came in a key situation, on a second and five at Arkansas’ 15 with Penn State down 24-10.
Lee got just enough yards for the first down, putting Penn State in a great position to get to within a touchdown.
So naturally, the Nittany Lions set up in a five-receiver set. Sean Clifford motioned Lee over but didn’t give him the ball. Instead, he threw an end-zone interception that ended what would be Penn State’s last good scoring chance.
Lee was effectively done, and so was Penn State.
After the game, Franklin acknowledged that the Nittany Lions needed to allow its running game to find a rhythm.
“We need to run the ball more consistently,” Franklin said. “There’s no doubt about that. We can’t go away from (running). We did some good things in the first half. We have to keep those things mixed in, and we didn’t do that.”
In Penn State’s regular-season finale against Michigan State, fans and reporters criticized and questioned James Franklin about using the run too much (Lee had 79 yards on 15 carries) and not taking advantage of the Michigan State pass defense, which ranked dead last the FBS.
In the Outback Bowl, the opposite questions are being asked. In both cases, the questions are fair.
With Gatorade National Football Player of the Year Nick Singleton coming in, Lee’s future role at Penn State is uncertain. What seems clear is that he’s done enough to be a big part of it.
Lee will probably never be compared to Jim Brown regardless of how well he is used. But any running back that can average nearly five yards a carry through two seasons in the Big Ten deserves better than four carries in a bowl game.