Penn State employed a relatively successful running game last season, averaging more than 200 yards per game, but James Franklin felt the attack had become too predictable and “not sophisticated enough.”
So the head coach and his offensive coordinator, Ricky Rahne, put their heads together in the offseason and came up with some different twists where the runs weren’t so conventional. The success of the operation was displayed last weekend when the Nittany Lions controlled the ball on the ground in the fourth quarter to defeat Iowa.
In particular, Franklin liked the way the Lions answered the Hawkeyes’ late touchdown by running out the final 2 minutes, 31 seconds with five rushes by freshman Noah Cain and a closing kneel-down.
“So now not only do we have a little bit more diversity in normal downs throughout the entire game, but also when you get into some of those situations where you want to be able to run it, at times where everybody in the stadium knows you’re going to run it, you have the ability to do that,” Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly media teleconference.
“I think that’s the first time we’ve done that against that type of opponent in my six years since I’ve been here [as head coach]. I think that is a critical, critical moment in our six years on the offensive side of the football.”
The seventh-ranked Lions (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) get a chance to show off their rushing style once again in Saturday night’s White Out game against No. 16 Michigan (5-1, 3-1) at Beaver Stadium. Penn State is fourth in the Big Ten with 191.2 yards per game on the ground, while the Wolverines are ninth in the defense-minded conference, allowing 122.8 yards per game.
Franklin said the Lions had been an inside-zone and power-read team. He said there are more calls now with counter plays, “the guard pulling, the tight end pulling as well, and wrapping and leading through.”
After a slow start against the Hawkeyes, the Lions finished with 177 rushing yards as Cain ground out 102 -- his second straight 100-yard game -- on 22 carries.
“I think it makes it a little more difficult to defend,” Franklin said, “and it allows you in situational football to have some things in your back pocket that you can go to. And Ricky did a really good job of having answers.”
The 5-foot-10, 206-pound Cain leads Penn State’s four-man running back rotation with 310 yards and is making a bid to become the team’s featured back if Franklin decides to go in that direction. The coach is not, and repeated Tuesday that “we’ve got four running backs that we really like that all get along really well.”
“I’ve got a little recorder,” he joked.
Franklin did admit, however, that Cain has a style that fits the Lions’ four-minute offense as he showed in chewing up yardage and time against Iowa.
“People would look at Noah and say he’s probably a traditional I-back, big back, downhill,” he said. “But in our spread offense, he’s been very, very successful. I think the other guys fit maybe what people would characterize as a traditional spread back. So probably the biggest thing for us is the four-minute situation, where I think that really makes sense for Noah.”