It’s not that Penn State doesn’t have talented running backs. Three players at that position have rushed for more than 100 yards in a college game. But in 2021, the Nittany Lions have continued to stumble with their ground attack, turning what was supposed to be an explosive and balanced offense into a one-dimensional grind.
Still, running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider, who has mentored backs like Miles Sanders and Journey Brown during his career with the Lions, stays positive with his guys.
“The one thing that makes football great is that it takes all 11 to do their job,” Seider said Thursday in a Zoom call with reporters. “If one guy doesn’t do his job, it can kill any play. We’re just trying to get all 11 to play as one. If we do that, we know good things are going to happen.
“That’s what I keep preaching as a coach. You haven’t forgotten how to play the game. I damn sure haven’t forgotten how to coach. I’m probably invested more this year than I ever have because we had more time with COVID. I’m not losing sight of that. I keep telling my guys to keep pressing forward. This thing is gonna turn. When it turns, it’s really gonna take off.”
The Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten), who play Saturday at Maryland, have been dreadful on the ground for much of the season. They have averaged 67.3 rushing yards during their current three-game losing streak, including a puny 33-yard output last week at Ohio State. During that stretch, they have managed just eight runs of 10 yards or more, with a high of 22.
Their overall rushing average of 108.1 yards is 114th out of 130 teams in FBS, and they are gaining just 92.2 yards per game in Big Ten play, averaging 3.3 per carry. The best individual performance has come from sophomore Keyvone Lee, who rushed for 74 yards on eight carries last month against Indiana.
Seider described some of the issues as schematic changes brought about by the hiring of Mike Yurcich, the team’s third offensive coordinator in as many seasons; a need to be more creative, no back seizing the No. 1 job; and players putting pressure on themselves and needing more patience waiting for the play to develop.
“It’s something the guys are working their butt off in,” he said. “They’re frustrated but they’re eager to try to fix this thing, which is always positive. You watch these kids practice, they’re practicing with the same demeanor. They haven’t changed, and that’s all you want to see as a coach.”
Perhaps the most puzzling part of the Lions’ overall run game has been the performance of junior Noah Cain, who had back-to-back 100-yard games as a freshman against Purdue and Iowa while rushing for 443 yards and eight touchdowns. Cain suffered a season-ending injury on the first series of the 2020 opener at Indiana and has been slow to return to form this season.
Seider said he had a long talk with Cain on Wednesday, telling him to not put so much pressure on himself, and to block out the outside noise and expectations.
“What I challenge him to do is, you’ve got to get out of this fog thinking of other things and trying to be the reason why everything’s got to click for us,” he said. “We don’t need you to be a superhero. We just need you to be Noah, and be that guy who was one of the most efficient runners his freshman year because he always went forward.
“If you get back to playing that way, it’s gonna lead us to more positive yards and you’re gonna give us more positive outcomes. Then we can get the ball to you even more.”
Cain’s high game this season is 69 yards on 20 carries against Ball State. The other two players to have 100-yard games in their careers are Lee (one last year against Michigan) and senior John Lovett (four during his career at Baylor).
Cain, Lee, Devyn Ford, and Caziah Holmes all came out of high school as consensus four-star running backs recruited by Seider. Ford was injured against Iowa and has missed the last two games. Holmes has played in just two games and continues to develop, the coach said.
Seider had an edge to his voice after being asked if the Lions’ struggles overall and in the ground game are affecting recruiting of running backs.
“The kids watch football, they know who we are,” he said. “They know what happened in the Iowa game. I mean, let’s be honest, man, and call a spade a spade. A healthy Sean Clifford in that Iowa game and the Illinois game, it’s a different story, right? I know people don’t want to hear that, but that’s the freakin’ truth, and I stick to it.”