Franklin: Penn State football's running game 'took a big step' forward against Indiana

KYLE J. ANDREWS
Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State running back Keyvone Lee (24) breaks away from Indiana defenders on a run in the first half of their NCAA college football ga me in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 02, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State running back Keyvone Lee says he has had confidence his entire life — even rating his own confidence as a "50" out of 10.

"It's something I grew up with. I've had a lot of confidence in myself and my mom always told me to have a lot of confidence because confidence can take you a lot of places," Lee said.

Lee entered Saturday night's matchup against Indiana with five yards per carry. He ended his night with eight carries, 74 yards and averaged 9.3 yards per carry. He also had a catch for eight yards in the 24-0 victory against the Hoosiers.

His mindset is the same heading into each game. Lee stays in tune to the details, understanding that each rushing play is designed for him to pop off 5-10 yards apiece. The sophomore running back reads his keys, presses the holes that his offensive line creates for him and runs with a combination of explosiveness and patience that other Penn State running backs have before him.

Lee's performance was indicative of Penn State's improvement in the running game on Saturday. After rushing for just 80 yards against FCS opponent Villanova last week, the Nittany Lions put up 209 yards on the ground against the Hoosiers.

Heading into the game against Indiana, there had been some questions about Penn State's running game. But offensive tackle Caedan Wallace, however, was confident at practice on Wednesday about his team's ability to have a strong rushing attack and set the tone with physicality.

"Everyone has to do their one-eleventh," Wallace said on Wednesday. "Everyone has to step up. It's never on a specific unit, like Franklin just said, it's a collective, all throughout the front seven and the running backs. We're going to improve this week. We're going to run the ball this week."

That they did with the team carrying the ball 42 times for 209 yards, averaging five yards per carry. Quarterback Sean Clifford was heavily involved in the action, carrying the ball 10 times for 58 yards and running back John Lovett had 10 carries for 41 yards.

Lee cites more cohesion: Lee credits the cohesion between the running backs and the offensive line for Saturday's success. The groups watch film together. They work in conjunction with one another in practice with inside and red zone drills. Offensive linemen are supposed to be a running back's best friend, working in concert with one another to create yardage.

"It was amazing seeing them play how they played today," Lee said. "I'm going to continue to be on their back — be in their ear and motivate them to keep going and keep going hard every week. It just opens up so quick. Everything happens so fast, it's like a reaction and you've just got to hit it [the hole] and go."

For head coach James Franklin, keeping a balance with the passing attack starts with the way the team plays in the running game. The more defenses stay on their toes to anticipate the passing attack, the rushing attack can wear them down with punishing blows. Penn State went 2-for-3 in the red zone and left points on the board when Lee was stuffed at the goal line in the T-formation.

Iowa to offer challenge: That could be something that they carry over to Iowa next week against a rushing defense that allows just 87 yards a game and clamps down on passers, as well, keeping them to 184.4 yards per game through the air.

"Last week, they brought up throwing the ball and we can obviously do that, as well," Franklin said. "From a mentality standpoint, I think it's very important to run the ball in the red zone, I think it's very important to run the ball in short-yardage situations and to be able to impose your will on people. I think that's an important aspect of the program. There are some things that we need to clean up and I'm going to take the positive approach that we took a step — a big step today in the running game. Obviously, there are some areas that we can get better at."