Penn State Football: The Philosophy Behind Fixing Franklin’s Running Game
Let’s run this one right down right now:
On October 19 and 26, and on November 23 Penn State will need to run the football.
Effectively. And often.
Against Michigan (a home Whiteout, possibly at noon), at Michigan State and at Ohio State’s Big House, respectively.
And with much respect.
Here’s why: On its way to constructing a 3-12 mark against the Big Three of the Big Ten East since James Franklin hit campus in 2014, Penn State has had a 99-yard rusher only five times in those 15 games.
And in two of those three wins, a single Nittany Lion running back ran for 99 yards or more:
Saquon Barkley vs. Ohio State in 2016 (12 carries, 99 yards) and Saquon vs. Michigan in 2017 (15-108-2 TDs). The third win? It came against Michigan State in 2016, when Saquon had just 14 yards on 12 carries, but was Decoy Central that game as Trace McSorley threw for 376 yards and four TDs.
In 10 of those 15 head coaching career-defining games against U-M, OSU and MSU, Penn State’s leading running back — be he Saquon, Sanders, Lynch or Belton — averaged just 15 carries for 53 yards. Hard to win rivalry games when your leading running back puts up team-high numbers like 14, 38, 43, 44, 51, 59, 62, 63, 68 and 69 yards, as has been the case against the Big Three.
(For context, please allow me to Nit-pick: Journey Brown led Penn State running backs with 6 carries for 28 yards vs. Buffalo, as overall PSU rushed for just 78 yards. And don't @ me that last week Penn State ran for 331 yards and 17 different backs scored TDs vs. Idaho. That's small potatoes.)
True, looking ahead is not on point with CJF’s message: Going 1-0 this week. And it’s not as if Pitt et al don’t matter. They do.
That’s why Penn State’s (lack of) faithful were booing their Nittany Lions when they ran off the field at halftime Saturday, down 10-7 to Buffalo. Hard to ignore.
(“You have to hear them,” shared PSU punter and co-captain Blake Gillikin on Saturday night, “but part of being a college football player is kind of blocking that stuff out, the good and the bad. That goes with in-person, social media, everything.”)
But the first 120 minutes of the 2019 season are just lead-up. “Learning,” Franklin said. The 79-7 win over Idaho. The 7-10 first half against Buffalo. The 38-3 second half against Buffalo.
Even the epic and historic 100th and final game against Pitt this Saturday, that Franklin and his players will no doubt downplay.
(Post-game Saturday night, Garrett Taylor said he didn’t know it was the last game of the series. Then No. 17 guessed it was the 17th meeting between these Commonwealth of Pennsylvania rivals that first squared off in 1893: “I just think we’re focused on the next game and Pitt happens to be our opponent.”)
That’s why Franklin — traveling the nation with one of his newest BFF’s in Ja’Juan Seider as they search for The Next Barkley (as if there is such a thing) — has been loading up on big-name high school backs. By the bushelful.
Virginians Ricky Slade and Devyn Ford. Noah Cain from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by way of IMG. Journey Brown, who brought his 722-yard/10 TD high school performance vs. DuBois to his home state school. And current four-star verbal commits Keyone Lee and Caziah Holmes, both from Florida.
Unless you have JoeMo, the ultimate RPO triggerman in Trace and big-play receivers like Gesicki, Hamilton and Godwin — PLUS Saquon — you ain’t gonna win the Big Ten East, let alone the whole dang conference. Let alone earning CJF a coveted spot in the CFP.
In the Rust Belt that is the Big Ten, pounding the football in late fall/early winter still matters. You gotta out-tough the other guy, even when you have a QB like Dwayne Haskins. Which is why Franklin proudly pronounced on Saturday night that Jahan Dotson was getting closer to having “a Big Ten body.”
BACKING OUT THE STATS
Which is why quarterback Sean Clifford leading the Nittany Lions in carries and tied for most rushing yards is a bit…interesting, if not problematic.
After two games, the Penn State’s leading rusher chart looks like this:
Clifford – 18 carries, 108 yards
Ford — 7-108, 1 TD
Brown — 11-66, 2 TD
Cain — 10-46, 3 TD
Slade — 8-17, 1 TD
KJ Hamler — 1-16
There are others on the list, but these are the guys who are going to be toting the rock when crunch time arrives.
It’s easy — but incorrect — to go straight to Slade, a sophomore who began the season as the presumptive No. 1 back. But he’s averaging just 2.1 yards per carry and already has lost a fumble, continuing a narrative begun last season — when he had three fumbles, losing two — that he may find hard to drop. Career-wise at Penn State, Slade has had 53 carries, with four fumbles, three that were lost. He flashed for 94 yards against Illinois last year, but take that way and thus far as a PSU RB he’s had 43 carries for 170 yards, a 3.33 yards per carry average.
But this is not about Slade. Certainly, he has not forgotten how to carry the football.
At C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge, Va., Slade finished with 5,499 career rushing yards and scored 72 touchdowns. Many of the guys in the Penn State running back room have almost-equally gaudy high schools. We’re looking at you, Messrs. Ford (2,056 yards, 32 TDs as a junior) and Cain (1,638 yards, 22 yards as a sophomore).
THE LINE ON THE LINE
Maybe, just maybe, it’s the Penn State offensive line. As I wrote a few weeks ago:
We’ve been hearing for a couple years that this is the breakout year for Matt Line-grower’s squad. Still waiting. Franklin has acknowledged that the staff needs to do some things to put the O-line in a position to succeed. And — hashtag drought — Penn State’s last first-team Big Ten O-lineman came in 2008 (A.Q. Shipley). In Limegrover’s first three years, albeit still post-sanction, the Nittany Lions have not had a first- or second-team Big Ten offensive lineman. Ryan Bates and Connor McGovern both made third team.
The pressure is on this unit in 2019, more than any other.
Take a look at Buffalo’s O-line on Saturday. It was HUGE. And effective against a much-hyped Penn State Wild Dog unit that featured wide splits and a sack-first mentality.
On average, Buffalo’s starting five along the offensive line averaged 6-foot-5 and 303 yards. And they played like it. On Saturday night, that line helped Buffalo pound four sustained drives of 10 plays or more, including a 96-yard march that led to a TD and another that lasted 8 minutes and 34 seconds — more than half of a whole quarter.
Of course, that could say as much about potential problems with Penn State’s D-line as it does about Buffalo taking no bull in the trenches.
You may say that Buffalo’s defense taunted the Penn State offense to throw — and man, Cliff did, as he responded with four TDs and 279 yards passing. (Third down remains a problem for Clifford, though, early into 2019: He’s 3 of 9 for 32 yards with one first down passing, and three carries for minus 15 yards rushing.)
Penn State took what Buffalo gave them. A couple of deep Dotson shots (drink every time Jahan scores a TD) and some well-timed flicks to stud tight end Pat Freiermuth, who has six touchdown receptions in his last five games.
But, there will come a time when Penn State’s offense — its offensive line, its running backs, Ricky Rahne and James — will need to take what they are not being given.
That time will come soon enough. Will the Nittany Lions be ready?
Franklin would be wise to listen to Spanish-born, Harvard-educated George Santayana. He was a philosopher, poet and pragmatist who loved three things about America:
“The good things are football, kindness and jazz bands.”
You may not know the name, but you know his work: It was Santayana who first wrote, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”
Passing is great and chicks dig the long ball. But ground and pound (still) wins the Big Ten. A slavish devotion to the quick score and the deep ball can be a kind of fanaticism. And Santayana had this to say about that:
“Fanaticism is…redoubling your effort after you’ve forgotten your aim.”
Here’s where it gets comical, in a literal sense. Chuck Jones, the legendary animator, used that Santayana quotation to describe his philosophy when cartoonishly showcasing Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner.
And we know how that turned out:
The running game always won.