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James Franklin wants to see improvement from Penn State’s offensive line and running backs

The Nittany Lions are statistically the second-worst rushing team in the Big Ten and their running backs have accounted for only 367 yards in four games.

Penn State running back Noah Cain (21) celebrates with offensive lineman Eric Wilson (68) after scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown against Auburn on Sept. 18.
Penn State running back Noah Cain (21) celebrates with offensive lineman Eric Wilson (68) after scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown against Auburn on Sept. 18.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Penn State coach James Franklin says the overall play of his offensive line has been good and that he is “satisfied” with the performance of his running backs.

But like any other coach in college football, he would love to see more from both areas to help the running game. The rushing numbers through four games are not good, a mild surprise considering the Nittany Lions are 4-0 and ranked No. 4 in the nation entering Saturday night’s Big Ten game against Indiana at Beaver Stadium.

The Lions rank 111th out of the 130 teams in FBS in rushing offense at 113.5 yards per game, second-lowest in the Big Ten, and their 3.41-yard per carry average is third-worst. Their five running backs have accounted for 367 yards in 92 carries, a shade less than 4.0 per tote.

In the two highest-profile games for them this season against Wisconsin and Auburn, the Nittany Lions have been unable to use their ground game to run out the clock in the closing minutes, needing the defense to safely get the team home with a win.

Penn State did grind out 240 rushing yards in Week 2 against Ball State, but has managed only 50, 94, and 80 yards in the other three games. Junior Noah Cain is the team’s top rusher with 164 yards, but he carried just once last week against Villanova because he got “dinged,” according to Franklin, the week before.

“I think there’s always going to be kind of a sense of wanting more and thinking we can get more,” Franklin said Tuesday on his weekly Zoom news conference. “That’s breaking more tackles. That’s being physical when we need to be physical, that’s bouncing when bouncing is appropriate. More times than not we want to be downhill and cut back than bounce.

“We’d love to get a little bit more explosive plays. We’d like to be a little bit more physical on short yardage. We’d like to break a few more tackles. I think it’s a combination of all of it: It’s the tight ends, it’s the O-line, it’s the running backs, it’s the coaches. It’s all of us. But I would say solid so far.”

The offensive line had its share of issues blocking Villanova’s front seven last week. The Lions had just one carry of 10 yards or more, for 13 by John Lovett. While Franklin likes the way the unit has protected quarterback Sean Clifford, who has been sacked six times in the first four weeks, he’d like to see more from the big guys.

“I think we can do a little bit better there,” he said. “I’d like to see us play with a little bit more of an edge, specifically in the run game, but really in the pass game as well.

“There’s opportunities. When you’re slide protecting or whatever it may be and you don’t have a threat in your gap and you can kick the defensive end or help the offensive tackle on the defensive end, I’d like to see us play with a little more of an edge. Overall, I would give us a positive grade so far as an O-line unit.”

When asked his definition of playing with an edge, Franklin replied, “I’m looking for fanatical effort, which I think we’ve done a pretty good job of.

“I’m looking for an amount of aggressiveness that is right up to the edge of what is legal and appropriate from the snap of the ball until the whistle is blown, nothing that’s going to be viewed or looked at as dirty, nothing that’s going to create penalties after the snap. When people watch us play, they see a team that played with tremendous effort and aggressiveness from the time the ball is snapped to the whistle.”

The relative lack of a running game hasn’t adversely affected the Penn State passing attack much. Clifford has thrown for 681 yards and six touchdowns the last two weeks to move up from 64th to 14th in FBS passing efficiency over that time. Now the goal is to get things going on the ground.

“When we can become just a little bit more efficient in the run game and a little bit more explosive in the run game, then I think we’ve got a chance to be really difficult to defend,” Franklin said.