The conditions were right for Penn State’s ground game to dominate in more ways than one.
Although the wind wasn’t as strong as people heard it might be, Memorial Stadium’s conditions favored a ground-based attack. So did the matchup: Penn State’s tandem of freshmen backs Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton against an Indiana run defense running out of steam.
Allen and Singleton went off.
Allen notched career highs in both touchdowns (three) and receiving yards out of the backfield (72) and also matched his highest output for rushing yards in a Big Ten game. Meanwhile, Singleton topped four yards a carry for the third time in five league games. The two backs continued to show why Penn State fans are so excited about what the team is building for 2023 and beyond.
“Whenever you can bring balance to an offense, it’s fantastic,” quarterback Sean Clifford said. “Both Kaytron and Nick, I thought, had real good days. Especially Kaytron. Obviously, when you find the (endzone) three times, it’s impressive. The way that he’s developed is awesome.”
As a top-10 running back coming out of Florida’s IMG Academy, Allen was hardly an unknown quantity when he arrived in University Park. But how he’s developed in such a short time has impressed fans, players and coaches alike, as he’s more than backed up his words from when he officially committed.
“I feel like I’ve got everything to offer,” Allen said in July 2021. “One thing about me, I get the job done. You’ve never got to worry about me slacking or none of that.”
Initially, Clifford wasn’t totally sure about that. When Penn State began winter workouts after the 2021 season, it didn’t take long for Allen to earn a reprimand from Clifford for a perceived lack of effort. During a workout, the freshman put his hands on his knees, which might have been tolerated by his high school coaches but wasn’t going to fly with Penn State’s veterans.
However, Allen had no idea that action wouldn’t fly with his new team. When Clifford told Allen to stand up, Allen, thinking he’d done nothing wrong, quickly proved to his quarterback that he wasn’t going to let that comment pass by.
“He went at me and Tig (Ji’Ayir Brown), got in our face,” Clifford said. “So I knew what type of dude he was from the jump. I knew he wasn’t going to take anything.
“I didn’t see it as a problem. I saw it as a dude who… he’s got something to him. It doesn’t matter who it is; you have the starting quarterback for the past three years, and then Ji’Ayir Brown, captain of the team, and he didn’t know, but I saw the fire that he had.”
On Saturday, the Hoosiers got a full blast of that fire in Allen’s ability to break tackles and make them miss completely. Allen’s best play of the day wasn’t even on a handoff, as he served as a safety valve for Clifford on a short pass to the sidelines, seemingly taking four or five yards and letting the Nittany Lions regroup for the next down after a positive play.
Instead, Allen gained the first down on the sidelines and then knifed through the Indiana defense to cut completely to the other side of the field. When the play was over, Allen had picked up 45 yards, and only Noah Pierre’s tackle prevented a Penn State touchdown. Of course, three plays later, Allen was in the end zone anyway, going six yards for his final score of the day.
“He’s a physical running back. He was running hard,” Indiana defensive back Taiwan Mullen said. “We weren’t wrapping him up, and he was doing his part to stay on his feet.”
It’s a big difference from a year ago when Penn State ranked 118th nationally in running the ball. This year, Penn State averages 171 yards per game on the ground and ranks 52nd, and that number would probably be higher if Penn State hadn’t had to go away from Allen and Singleton in losses to Michigan and Ohio State.
“All the animosity toward the run game at Penn State the past two years has hurt a lot,” Penn State offensive lineman Bryce Effner said. “We wanted the offensive unit to be as tight and as well-oiled as possible this year, with no mistakes and no excuses. That’s been a major focus for us.”
Having the explosive gear Allen and Singleton brought to the table certainly hasn’t hurt.
“I’d attribute it to youth,” Effner said. “It’s been five years for me, and it’s awesome when I step on the field, but when they step on the field, it’s the first time they’ve played that team or been in that stadium.
“They just run the ball as hard as they can because they’re excited to be there. I’m more like, ‘Let’s get this block done, I need to do this,’ and they’re like, ‘I’m going to score a touchdown!’ and it’s awesome seeing touchdowns.”