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Noah Cain emerges from crowded Penn State backfield to jump-start the offense in fourth quarter

The freshman finished with 105 yards on just 12 carries.

Purdue defenders converge on Penn State running back Noah Cain (21).
Purdue defenders converge on Penn State running back Noah Cain (21).Read moreAbby Drey / MCT

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. –– It was almost as if all of Beaver Stadium had fallen asleep.

The Penn State offense had gone nine drives without scoring, and although the outcome of the game was never really in question in the 35-7 victory, the Nittany Lions were still searching for something that resembled their first four drives, all of which resulted in touchdowns.

In stepped freshman running back Noah Cain.

He was on the field for a handful of plays in the second quarter and totaled 23 yards on four carries. But the Penn State rushing attack as a whole was limited through the first three quarters, averaging just under 3 yards per carry.

On Penn State’s second drive of the final quarter, the first play was a handoff to Cain –– an 11-yard gain. Three plays later, Cain got the ball again –– a 16-yard pickup. Then he got the ball again –– 8 yards. And again –– 27 yards.

At that point, the Nittany Lions were just two yards from the end zone. Cain got the ball again –– touchdown.

“That was huge for us,” wide receiver Jahan Dotson said of Cain’s performance on that drive. “We always preach ending the game on our terms. We lulled to sleep a little bit throughout the second and third quarter. It was huge to get that drive back.”

Cain totaled 64 yards on five carries during that fourth-quarter scoring drive. Aside from his final carry of the drive –– in which he picked up the only 2 yards he could –– Cain gained at least 8 yards each time he was given the ball. Often the play would end with two or three Purdue defenders trying to bring him down.

“I was finishing my blocks and I just look up and see him zoom past me,” left guard Steven Gonzalez said. “It took a couple guys to bring him down. We feed off of that.”

Of course, Gonzalez said the offensive linemen block as hard as they can regardless of who is running behind them. But he did admit that watching players like Cain finish runs gives them plenty of motivation.

“When they’re running hard and they’re pushing through the pile trying to get one or two extra yards, we try to help them,” Gonzalez said.

It wasn’t the first time Cain put the offense on his back at a time when the offense really needed it. In the Nittany Lions’ previous home game –– a 17-10 win over Pitt –– it was Cain’s six-carry, 40-yard drive capped by a 13-yard touchdown that gave Penn State the lead for the final time in the game.

When Cain is able to come in for a drive and take over, providing consistent rushes each time, it certainly takes some of the weight off quarterback Sean Clifford’s shoulders.

“It makes my job a lot easier,” Clifford said. “My job is not to keep the ball. My job is to get the ball into our playmakers’ hands –– guys like Noah.”

Cain finished with 105 yards on 12 carries. The other three running backs had 61 yards on 16 carries. One game probably isn’t enough to make him the clear starter. But a performance like Cain’s will likely start a conversation among the Penn State coaches.

“After today you could make some arguments to put Noah at the top of the depth chart,” coach James Franklin said.

In such a crowded backfield, opportunities to separate themselves are few and far between for the four Penn State running backs. But Cain’s ability to get positive yardage on every carry might just give him the edge through five games.

“He sticks his foot in the ground.” Franklin said. “He’ll get a 16-yarder, then a 12-yarder, then a 4-yarder and then a 3-yarder. He is just very consistent.”