COLLINS: Penn State gets unexpected — and much-needed — boost from young running backs

The (Scranton) Times-Tribune (TNS)
Penn State running back Keyvone Lee (24) rushes during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Michigan, Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

For sure, James Franklin is a lot of things. As much as he'd like to be, clairvoyant isn't one of them.

So as he watched true freshman running back Keyvone Lee plow through the Michigan defense, pile up yard after yard, lower shoulder after shoulder, move the chains time and time again, he figures he did so the same way many Penn State fans must have. With excitement, and a certain measure of surprise.

After all, the biggest worry with Penn State's running game last summer was how much playing time they could find for sophomore Devyn Ford behind two of the best backs in the country. For as much as Penn State liked Lee's promise as a high school back from Clearwater, Fla., nobody on Penn State's sidelines figured he'd play much outside of lopsided wins this season, never mind lead the way with a bruising 134 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries in Penn State's first win of the season, 27-17, over Michigan at the vaunted Big House.

But with Journey Brown medically retired, Noah Cain out for the season with an injury and Ford not in Ann Arbor due to a death in his family, a Nittany Lions running game that finally looked like the force it was in last year's Cotton Bowl was led by two true freshmen, Caziah Holmes and the undaunted Lee.

"That was our fourth-string running back, and I don't mean that in a negative way," Franklin said. "We had one of the most respected running back rooms in the country. And to be in this situation where we've got two true freshmen carrying the full load, and to see them do it ..."

Franklin paused, then shrugged.

"For me to sit here and say that I saw that and knew that (was coming)? We thought they were both talented kids, but you don't get a whole lot of reps when you're fourth and fifth on the depth chart, and that's without spring ball and that's without a traditional training camp," he went on. "So it's great to see, and I'm proud of them. But we've got a lot of room for improvement."

Lee looks like veteran: Lee, who enrolled at Penn State in the summer, attacked the Michigan defense with a veteran's consistency.

He had 39 yards on the Nittany Lions' first drive, which he capped with a 6-yard touchdown run. By the end of the first quarter, he had 50 yards, but Holmes played most of the second and third quarters before Lee reentered in the fourth quarter to put the Wolverines away with 87 yards on nine carries.

On the sidelines, Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa watched, impressed. Not by the numbers. Not by the surprise of it all. But by how Lee seemed like he had done it all so often before.

"Something that I saw today ... he runs very patient for a freshman," Brooks said. "He was very patient for a freshman, and that's going to pay dividends to him and our offense. Heck of a player."

Run game helps defense: Penn State doesn't put as much statistical value in winning the time of possession battle as it used to, but it held the ball 13 more minutes than Michigan had it largely because of the running game. That kept the defense fresher later into the game, and it took pressure off a passing game that had led to too many turnovers during the team's 0-5 start.

While Franklin wouldn't have predicted that Lee would be an important part of the offense this season, now he is, and for as many roadblocks as the Penn State running game has had to overcome in 2020, Lee's development has taken a sharp turn upward because of it, leading many teammates to start getting excited for his future.

"The biggest thing for him, why he's starting to see a little more success, is his understanding of the game is improving each week," center Michal Menet said. "You can see it by the cuts that he makes and the vision that he has. He's always going to run hard. If you couple that with a greater understanding of the game, he's going to be really dangerous. He's starting to be."