The decencies of Penn State’s rushing game in Saturday’s 35-19 loss to Maryland look bad enough on the surface.
Against a Terrapins team which entered the game having surrendered 293.5 yards per game on the ground on average, the Nittany Lions running attack sputtered to a halt.
Penn State ran for just 94 yards. It averaged just 2.6 yards per rush. It did not have a single player accumulate more than 40 yards on the ground.
But, in an offense like Penn State’s, which relies heavily on a run-pass option scheme, the struggles of the ground game spawned problems of their own.
“Offensively, we weren’t able to get the running game going,” James Franklin said. “Which, everything builds off of that. That continues to be an issue for us.
“We’re not able to put people in conflict with the RPO stuff because there’s not enough respect for the running game right now.”
The result, for Penn State, was a nightmarish game offensively, made only slightly better by a pair of garbage time touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Through three quarters, the Nittany Lions’ offense had achieved only 258 yards, and had given away as many points as it had scored, thanks to a Sean Clifford fumble that Maryland returned for a touchdown.
It’s left Franklin and the rest of Penn State scrambling to diagnose the run game’s issues, through the lens of the most obvious problem: The Lions are missing Journey Brown and Noah Cain, who entered the season as the top two running backs on the depth chart.
“We weren’t sustaining blocks,” Franklin said. “We haven’t been able to break tackles consistently and make people miss consistently. It’s been similar for the first couple of weeks. We’re not getting consistent push. We’re not sustaining blocks.”
None of the remaining options in the Nittany Lions’ running back room have shown the same kind of capability showcased last season by Brown and Cain as of yet.
Devyn Ford appears to be the first choice running back, with 37 carries to his name thus far this season. He’s averaging an unspectacular 3.81 yards per carry and has found the end zone just once.
Saturday, they showed more of the same. Ford had nine attempts for 36 yards. Holmes picked up 29 yards on the same number of carries, and Lee carried the ball one time for three yards.
But, as tight end Pat Freiermuth pointed out, not all the blame can be placed at the feet of Penn State’s young backfield.
“Running the ball is just a mentality,” Freiermuth said. “At the end of the day, if you can’t block the guy across from you then it’s not going to work. Obviously there’s certain run calls we like with certain defenses and certain fronts, but that’s kind of where I’m at.
“My self evaluation is kind of, if we’re not going to have the mentality where we can’t move a man from point A to point B, then it’s not really on our coaches, it’s not really on our running backs. It’s on us a unit, as tight ends and O-line to take that pride and mentality, to be physical and — our effort. That’s something that I also think is disappointing is our effort.”
Franklin and new offensive line coach Phil Trautwein shuffled the offensive line around on Saturday, which Franklin said was a an attempt to both make use of what he believes is good depth at that position and give a new look to a unit that wasn’t working.
It had minimal impact, and Penn State’s offense wasn’t good enough in any respect to take advantage of a Maryland defense that had given up over 40 points in each of its first two games.
“We’re not playing up to our standards and we’re not playing up to our capability,” Freiermuth said.