Penn State rushing for 396 yards against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl in December 2019 seems like a lifetime ago.
The Nittany Lions can’t run the football effectively these days, and that’s a problem for a team that has championship aspirations.
They can’t beat Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan or Michigan State if they’re one-dimensional on offense.
James Franklin knows it, too.
“You can’t sustain it, being one-dimensional,” said Franklin, the Penn State coach. “You have to be able to run. There are going to be times where we’re going to have to run the ball out on offense, and a four-minute offense is going to magnify those issues.
“We have to find a way to improve.”
The Lions (4-0) netted just 80 yards on 34 carries (2.4 average) against a FCS opponent, albeit a very good one, in a 38-17 victory over Villanova Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
They’re averaging a paltry 119.3 rushing yards, next-to-last in the Big Ten and 111th out of 130 FBS teams.
Only once have they topped 94 yards in four games, and that was a 240-yard effort against Ball State. As a comparison, Toledo mauled the Cardinals for 272 rushing yards Saturday in a 22-12 win.
“We just have to emphasize it more,” Franklin said. “There’s a number of factors that go into that, but we need to be more detail-oriented. We need to be more physical.
“The touchdown we scored down here (in the south end zone) against Auburn, you look at Rasheed (left tackle Rasheed Walker), he collapsed the side of the line. We’ve got to do those types of things more consistently.”
Ironically, Franklin changed offensive line coaches a few days after Penn State’s outstanding rushing performance in the 2019 Cotton Bowl. He fired Matt Limegrover and hired Phil Trautwein, a former Florida offensive lineman who played in the NFL.
Trautwein has an impressive background, but he has yet to make a dramatic impact. The Lions finished fifth in the Big Ten in rushing in 2020, but they had four games in which they failed to average more than 3.0 yards a carry.
Penn State also has allowed eight sacks so far; only Iowa, Illinois, Purdue and Nebraska have allowed more in the Big Ten.
Yet Sean Clifford is playing at a very high level, completing 71.7% of his passes for 1,158 yards and eight touchdowns and two interceptions, including one Saturday in which KeAndre Lambert-Smith dropped a throw that landed in the hands of a Villanova defender.
Smith, Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington are as good as any wide receiver group in the Big Ten, outside Ohio State.
“If we can be a little bit more effective in the running game, then we can give some people challenges throughout this season,” Franklin said. “There are going to be games when the defense’s weakness is stopping the run. We need to be able to capitalize on that, and I wouldn’t say we’d be able to do that right now.”
Three starters returned on the offensive line: Walker, center Mike Miranda and right tackle Caedan Wallace. Juice Scruggs, a fourth-year player, is at right guard. Eric Wilson, a graduate transfer from Harvard, and Bryce Effner, another fourth-year player, alternated at left guard against Villanova.
These aren’t young guys with little experience.
“We have a really good football team (Indiana) coming in this week,” Franklin said, “and we need to find a way to get better in the areas that we’re weak in right now.”
He gets a tip of the cap for acknowledging and addressing the running game issues after the win over Villanova. He was asked where he hoped the running game would be four games into this season.
“I’d like to see us leading the nation in rushing,” Franklin said.
The Lions have a long, long way to go to get there.
Source: Berkshire mont