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Should Noah Cain be Penn State’s No. 1 Running Back?

by on October 05, 2019 5:30 PM

Is Noah Cain able?

To be Penn State’s No. 1 running back, that is.

At least part of James Franklin thinks so — and he hinted as much after his Nittany Lions defeated Purdue 35-7 on Homecoming Saturday in Beaver Stadium to extend their record to 5-0.

“You have a young kid like Noah Cain, who just continues to get better and is playing with confidence and is very decisive in how he runs,” said Franklin.

“He sticks a foot in the ground and gets north and south. He breaks tackles. He’ll get a 16-yard (run), he’ll get a 12-yarder, he’ll get a 4-yarder, he’ll get a 3-yarder. He’s just very consistent. He’s always falling forward.”

Franklin was simply describing what he — and you and I — saw Saturday afternoon, when the Lions needed a lift:

After four consecutive touchdowns to open the game against the Boilermakers, Penn State went eight straight drives without any discernible progress:

Interception, missed field goal, muffed punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt.

(Which concerned quarterback Sean Clifford so much, that he said he was going to talk with the team’s sports psychologist, Carl Ohlson, on Sunday about the squad’s demeanor and resiliency after those repeated mini-fails.)

Then along came Cain.

With 7:53 left in the game and Penn State ahead 28-7 but in neutral for over half the contest, Penn State’s offense took the field at its own 13-yard line.

Then, Cain took over:

Cain rush, 11 yards, first down.

Clifford, rush for 1 yard, then pass for 22 yards and a first down to Daniel George.

Cain rush, 16 yards, another first down.

Cain rush, 8 yards.

Cain rush, 27 yards, another first down.

Cain rush, 2 yards, touchdown. Jake Pinegar PAT.

In 129 seconds, the 5-foot-10, 206-pounder showed he has what it takes to be the Nittany Lions’ top running back — when it matters most. A true freshman from Louisiana by way of IMG Academy, Cain finished with a team-high 105 yards on 12 carries, and an outstanding 8.8-yards per carry average. He also had had three catches for 25 yards against the Boilermakers.

Against Purdue, the other three Nittany Lion running backs combined for 16 rushes and 61 yards. The breakdown: Devyn Ford (7-38), Journey Brown (5-21) and Ricky Slade (4-2).


After the game, Franklin was not ready to anoint Cain his No. 1 running back.

“I’m not going to announce a change or a decision at the running back position before watching the tape and studying all those things,” Franklin said. “We thought Journey had a couple of weeks where he did a couple of good things, so he moved to the top of the depth chart.”

Franklin is right, a case can be that Brown is the Lions’ No. 1 back, when you include his ability as a dual threat, running the ball and catching passes, and the fact Brown started the past two games (Slade started the first two). But in each of the past two contests, Brown has had identical five-carry, 21-yard efforts — hardly the stuff of a No. 1 RB.

“Obviously after today, you could make some arguments that maybe it’s Noah moving to the top of the depth chart,” Franklin said. “I don’t know if it’s gotten to the point where someone consistently in practice and games has separated himself from the pack. So, I still think we’re going to play four guys. But there could be a guy who’s the lead starter.”


Among the running backs, Cain leads the team in carries (35) and rushing touchdowns (5). Clifford has 43 carries for 200 yards. On the season, here’s the how the Nittany Lions running backs have fared:

Brown — Rush: 31-217 yards, 7.0 ave., 3 TDs; receive: 7-89 yards, 1 TD

Cain — Rush: 35-208, 5.94, 5 TDs; rec.: 5-27 yards

Ford — Rush: 26-198, 7.61, 2 TDs; rec.: 5-30 yards

Slade — Rush: 24-51, 2.12, 2 TDs; rec.: 7-89 yards

Cain’s performance against Purdue was the third 100-yard effort by a Nittany Lion running back in 2019. Ford ran for 107 yards on six carries against Idaho, while Brown rushed for 109 carries on 10 carries against Pitt.

But, other than those three times, no Penn State running back has run for at least 45 yards in any other of the contests. (Clifford ran for 57 yards against Idaho, and led PSU in rushing against Buffalo, with 51 yards, and against Maryland, with 54 yards.)


Cain’s fourth-quarter takeover against the Boilermakers was eerily reminiscent of what he did in the third quarter against Pitt three weeks ago, with the game tied 10-10 in the third quarter.

On a game-deciding 13-play, 88-yard drive vs. the Panthers that lasted nearly five minutes, Cain carried the ball — and the Lions — to a go-ahead touchdown and an eventual 17-10 victory. On that drive, Cain rushed six times, gaining 40 yards and producing three first downs and a touchdown, with runs of 4, 3, 9, 7, 4 and 13 yards.

Penn State veteran offensive guard Steven Gonzalez, who has blocked for the likes of Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders, likes what he sees in Cain.

“He was running hard,” Gonzelez said of Cain’s fourth-quarter string vs. Purdue. “I’d be finishing my block, I’d look up and I would see him zoom past me. It took a couple of their guys to take him down. We feed off of that, too.

“Obviously, Noah had the hot hand at the end toward the end, and kept on running hard.”

And Cain might just be able to keep it going.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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