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Penn State rushing game remains inconsistent in short-yardage situations

The Nittany Lions went 3 of 11 in their last two games when faced with third and fourth downs of 3 yards or less. Coach James Franklin wants his team to be more physical to gain yardage.

Penn State running back Keyvone Lee is tackled by Indiana linebacker Cam Jones (4) in the first half Saturday night.
Penn State running back Keyvone Lee is tackled by Indiana linebacker Cam Jones (4) in the first half Saturday night.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

A common theme to Penn State’s season, though not in a good way, has been the inability of the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions to have consistent success converting short-yardage situations on third and fourth downs.

The numbers the last two games are not good. The Lions went 2-of-5 against Villanova and 1-of-6 against Indiana on third and fourth downs with 3 yards or less to go. The Hoosiers mounted a goal-line stand, stopping Penn State twice at the 1-yard line, where they turned the ball over on downs.

With the schedule getting tougher, including Saturday’s showdown at No. 3 Iowa, the Lions must find a way to get tough short yardage when needed and keep moving the chains.

“I think more than anything, it’s mentality,” coach James Franklin said Tuesday during his weekly Zoom news conference. “We have got to be more physical. There’s times that we’re on a double team and we’re not getting as much movement as we need to get. I think there’s some things that we can do to make sure that people know that we will and are going to throw the ball in those situations, too.

“I think that’s important, whether it’s a dropback quick game, whether it’s an RPO, or whether it is play-action pass. But at the end of the day, if we are who I think we are, we’ve got to be able to line up and get a yard or two when we need it, when everybody in the stadium knows you’re going to run the ball.

“So we’re going to keep chipping away at it and stay positive. I do think we took a step in the right direction last week, maybe not specifically in that area but in the running game, and I believe that will translate over time. We need to take a step this week and that will be part of our emphasis” this week in practice.

The offensive line and the running backs haven’t seemed to always be on the same page, and that’s not just in short-yardage situations. The Nittany Lions rushed for 209 yards against Indiana, only the second time in five games they had rushed for triple digits.

Their highest individual season rushing output came Saturday from sophomore Keyvone Lee, who gained 74 yards on eight carries, two of which went for 44 and 21 yards. Noah Cain, who missed much of the Auburn game, leads the team in rushing with 187 yards in five games, an average of 37.4 yards, and Lee has 174.

Franklin said he’d like to see three backs in the rotation every game — senior John Lovett ran for 41 yards against Indiana — but admitted there can be a downside.

“The drawback is, depending on the type of backs that you have, is that sometimes they need to get into a rhythm,” he said. “I get that as well. There’s also the aspect that until somebody steps up and shows that they are the guy, it’s hard for us based on what we have seen at this stage to just crown somebody [as No. 1]. We’d love for that to happen.”

The 220-pound Cain, a junior who was injured in the 2020 season opener and missed the rest of the year, has shown the power and burst to be a No. 1 running back. Two years ago he was the first freshman in program history to post back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, including 102 at Iowa. He finished that season with 443 yards.

Cain rushed for only 23 yards in 11 carries against Indiana, perhaps not yet 100% from when he got “dinged” against Auburn. Franklin said he expects him to be “full go” on Saturday.

“In terms of what he’s working through, that’s part of football,” he said. “Everybody at this time of the year, with the competition we’ve played, is working through things. Noah always approaches those things the right way. He lives in the training room whether he has a bump or a bruise or not. I know he’ll do everything he possibly can” to be ready for Iowa.

Stout honored

Penn State punter/kicker Jordan Stout was named the Big Ten’s special teams co-player of the week. Stout, who ranks seventh in the nation in punting, averaged 46.3 yards on six punts in Saturday’s win over Indiana, placing four inside the 20-yard line. He also kicked a 50-yard field goal, his fourth career make of 50 yards or more.