Penn State’s running-back rotation reminds college football analyst Ross Tucker of a pizza.
Especially when you want more.
“Cut it into thirds, you can reasonably get people a good amount of touches,” said Tucker, a former NFL lineman who talks Penn State football weekly on the Keystone Sports Network. “But when you’re trying to cut it into quarters, it becomes really tough.”
Penn State heads to Michigan State on Saturday with a 7-0 record, a No. 6 national ranking and so much tantalizing promise before it. Little wonder, then, that coach James Franklin didn’t want to hear about offensive lulls or running-back rotations or wide-receiver usage Tuesday during his weekly press conference.
“Yeah, we can get better,” Franklin said of his offense. “We’re looking at everything we possibly can do to get better. We’re 1-0 this past week. We’ve got to be more consistent.”
Penn State ranks a lofty 10th nationally in scoring average at 40 points per game, but that number lowers on further inspection. The Lions average 46.3 points per game against FBS team with losing records and 20.7 against those with winning records.
The offense has mixed breathtaking big-play moments with prolonged funks, as it did Saturday against Michigan. Penn State took a 21-0 lead, scoring touchdowns on three of its first five series, then punted on five consecutive possessions.
The Lions broke loose from that lull when Sean Clifford hit KJ Hamler for a a 53-yard touchdown pass, extending their lead back to 14 points.
A puzzling rotation: Tucker, a Wyomissing native who runs the Ross Tucker Football Podcast, said he has seen Penn State’s offense make notable strides this season. The offensive line finishes “the best I’ve seen in the Franklin era,” quarterback Sean Clifford is coming into his own and coordinator Ricky Rahne has upgraded the short-yardage run game with some creative new plays.
But even Tucker isn’t quite sure what to make of the rotation at running back, where Franklin said again this week that all four backs (Cain, Ricky Slade, Journey Brown and Devyn Ford) will play at Michigan State.
Against Michigan, none of the backs had more than 5 carries. And all four combined for 13, just 2 more than Clifford had alone.
“I think it’s fair to question the running-back deployment,” Tucker said. "There’s always a balance there between doing what you think is best for the team in the short term, best for the team over the course of a season and taking the whole depth chart and the future of the program into account at some level. … I don’t know, maybe you could argue that they’re doing it right. But I’m not familiar with any position at any high level that has a four-man rotation."
Coach losing sleep: Earlier this month, Penn State running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider said maneuvering the rotation was costing him sleep. “It was kicking my butt,” said Seider, who ultimately decided that this was his best option.
“I’m 100-percent confident when we’re in the game that we’re making the right decision on how these guys are playing,” Seider said. “But who knows what’s going to happen [in the future]?”
Penn State’s run game has shown improvement this year, particularly in some short-yardage and 4-minute situations. Franklin traced that to an offseason study which determined that the run game “wasn’t sophisticated enough.”
So Franklin and Rahne added plays, such as counter runs and tosses, to complement their primary inside-zone runs. Those came into play on important drives against Iowa and Michigan.
“I think it makes it a little bit more difficult to defend, and it allows you in situational football to have some things in your back pocket that you can go to,” Franklin said after the win over Iowa. "And Ricky did a really good job of having answers."
"Bigger toolbox:" Tucker said he has noticed.
“One of the things they’ve changed since last year, and certainly since [offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead left] is that they have a bigger toolbox of runs, which is especially noticeable in short yardage,” Tucker said. "Before they really just had like two runs, primarily the inside zone when it was with Saquon Barkley.
“Now they have a bigger menu to choose from that includes some different gap schemes where you’re pulling a lineman, and it’s not just an inside-zone run. It certainly forces defenses to play those situations more honestly as opposed to just anticipating some type of inside zone or zone read.”
Questions remain: Still, the backfield personnel question remains, and Tucker delineated his pecking order: 50 percent of the carries to Cain, 20 percent to Ford, 20 percent to Brown and 10 percent to Slade. Through 7 games, Cain has taken 38 percent of the carries among the 4 backs, followed by Brown (24 percent) and Slade and Ford (19 percent each).
Franklin, meanwhile, remains committed to his rotation. Asked Tuesday about Cain, and whether outsiders were missing something about his usage, Franklin said he appreciated the question’s phrasing. The coach said he had dinner with Cain on Monday, and Franklin’s wife Fumi was “busting [Cain’s] chops.”
And Franklin is just as pleased with the freshman running back as fans are.
“We found a way to get a win last week against one of the more talented rosters in the country, against a really good football program, and Noah had a big part in that and will continue to have a big part in that,” Franklin said. “I think you’ll see his role grow as the season goes on, or you’re going to see another back take some steps, as well. We’ll see.”