Despite 4-0 start, Penn State's sluggish run game remains serious concern
Rasheed Walker took out so many Auburn defensive linemen on a Noah Cain rushing touchdown that, a week later, Penn State head coach James Franklin still mentioned it.
The context surrounding its mention, however, was less than ideal for the Nittany Lions.
"The touchdown we scored down here against Auburn, you look at Rasheed, he collapsed the side of the line," Franklin said following Penn State's 38-17 win over Villanova on Saturday. "We've got to do those types of things more consistently."
It's not just that those plays aren't happening frequently. You'd be hard pressed to find any play like that from this week's game against Villanova.
The Nittany Lions (4-0) tallied only 80 rushing yards against an FCS opponent in the Wildcats and have struggled to get going on the ground in 2021.
Franklin cited the need to emphasize the team's ground attack throughout the week in order to help it break through.
"It's one of those deals you talk about until you're blue in the face, you show examples" Franklin said. "We have had to have setbacks in the past to really grow and learn. We shouldn't have to do that. We will emphasize that point as strong as you possibly can. We'll have pretty aggressive meetings tomorrow going through these things. ... We just gotta emphasize it more. ... We need to be more detail-oriented, we need to be more physical."
Several factors at work: The lack of success running the ball can be caused by several factors. The offensive line may not be getting enough push, the running backs may not be hitting the holes when they're created or the defense may be keying in on the run so aggressively that running the ball is a near impossibility.
Penn State's issue appears to be a mix of everything, without any one group or issue solely to blame.
Starting left guard Eric Wilson says the offensive line has the tools and coaching from offensive line coach Phil Trautwein needed to get the job done, and that the group just needs to hone in on its technique to make sure its refined.
"We as an o-line want to get more consistent with our technique," Wilson said. "... Once we do that, we're confident things will come together."
Need to be more physical: Franklin echoed Wilson's thoughts, but added that the group needed to be more physical when it was time to run the ball. Those type of changes will help, but it's not going to suddenly turn everything around and make the Nittany Lions a running juggernaut.
Instead, the team will need to make incremental improvements, and establishing that it can be a threat to run the ball to go with what has been a dynamic passing attack through four games this season.
"We just have to gradually take steps in the run game," Franklin said. "... It's not like we're going to come in next week and rush for 400 yards. We just have to get better and continue to emphasize it and work it in."
The team's running backs haven't been at the top of their game this season, but haven't exactly been looking at gaping holes to run through, either. Senior running back John Lovett, who led Penn State with 45 yards on 11 carries, said the third aspect played an even bigger role than most would anticipate.
Giving Villanova credit: Lovett saw a Villanova defense that was prepared and ready to put up a fight against the Nittany Lion rushing offense.
"They were a great defense," Lovett said. "They did what they had to do. We just gotta get better. Offense, defense, special teams, everything, just keep getting better."
The Villanova defense seemed to make a concerted effort to force Penn State to throw the ball. Specifically, to force the offense to throw the ball to the outside.
Screens work well: Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich took advantage of that numerous times, calling quick screens to his wide receivers on the outside.
Those plays are not technically rushing plays, but they do serve as an extension of the running game. The ball is delivered immediately after the snap to what is usually a wide open receiver behind the line of scrimmage.
Those plays won't add to the team's rushing total, but they can have the same effect as running the ball in the first place.
"The one thing I would say, that probably isn't being talked about a whole lot, is people are going to outnumber you in the box," Franklin said. "We've had a lot of success throwing the perimeter screens. ... That's an extension of the running game, as well, if people are going to defend you that way."
Improvement still needed: Even with those plays and playmakers like Jahan Dotson, KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Parker Washington racking up yards after catch on them, Penn State will still need to prove it can run the ball. Franklin has previously said his team needs to run the ball when everyone in the stadium expects it to run.
This week, Penn State couldn't run in seemingly any situation. That may not end up being a big deal with how good the passing offense and defense is at this point.
But if any weakness sinks the Nittany Lions this season, it just may be its inability to do what everyone thought it would excel at entering the year.