Penn State began the season with a set of running backs coach James Franklin considered to be among the nation's best and an offensive line that he thought would be dominant.
Four weeks into the season, the Lions rank 13th in the Big Ten in rushing offense, rushing yards per game and yards per carry. They have topped 100 yards rushing just once in four games. At halftime of their 38-17 win over Villanova, the Lions had generated 18 yards rushing on 17 carries and finished with 80.
And yet that might not matter as the Lions resume their quest for a Big Ten title.
No. 4 Penn State hosts Indiana on Saturday at Beaver Stadium with an offense that has inverted expectations so far this season. With five experienced backs and a rejuvenated offensive line, the run game figured to buffer quarterback Sean Clifford, ease his transition to coordinator Mike Yurcich's new offense and help mitigate the turnover issues of 2020.
Instead, Clifford and the big-play passing game have been the story of Penn State's first month. Clifford ranks second in the Big Ten in completion percentage (71.7) and QB rating (171.68), buoyed by his trio of talented receivers.
After playing his best career game against Auburn, Clifford threw for a career-high 401 yards against Villanova. And the Lions have three receivers among the conference's top 20 in yards per game, with Jahan Dotson and Parker Washington ranking in the top six.
Penn State is a perpetual big-play threat (12 plays of 30+ yards), and Yurcich plays to that strength. What to do when Villanova stacks its defensive front to bury the run? How about completing four pass plays of 50+ yards for the first time since 2013?
As Franklin said last week, "We've found four different ways to win." Perhaps the run game doesn't need to be one of those.
Certainly, Franklin wants the Lions to run the ball more consistently, more effectively, and more physically. Against Villanova, for example, Penn State was 0-for-3 on third-down plays of 1-4 yards. And Auburn stuffed Clifford on a fourth-down sneak early in the game.
"I think we've got to get better in the run game on offense," Franklin said. "Not that we will necessarily call the game any different, but when we do decide to run or need to run, that we feel like we can be efficient doing so."
Penn State's run-game issues touch every aspect of the offense. The line has been uneven getting push and opening gaps, though it blocks better in passing situations. The backs have looked tentative at times. The tight ends miss blocks. And everyone appears to be adjusting a bit slowly to Yurcich's run-game approach.
"I think it's a combination of all of those [elements]," Franklin said. "The tight ends, the [offensive] line, the running backs, the coaches, all of us."
Each of Penn State's four main backs has made contributions and had some issues. Noah Cain, returning from a 2020 injury, made some big plays in the win over Wisconsin and has caught eight passes. Keyvone Lee averages 5 yards per carry.
John Lovett, who didn't play the first two games, has shown bursts of potential the past two. And Devyn Ford averages 4.1 yards per carry in limited action.
But they're getting hit too often at or behind the line of scrimmage. According to SIS, Cain has been hit at the line 15 times on 48 carries; Lee 11 times on 20 carries. In all, the four backs have been stuffed for no gain or loss 18 times in 90 carries. Lee has fumbled twice (though he lost neither).
"I think there is always going to be a sense of wanting more and thinking that we can get more," Franklin said of the backs. "That's breaking more tackles, that's being physical when you need to be physical, that's bouncing when bouncing is appropriate."
But Penn State also runs by passing, an important element of Yurcich's offense. The receiving trio of Dotson, Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith have generated 443 of their 682 receiving yards (or 65 percent) after the catch. Penn State ranks a decent fifth in the Big Ten in total receiving yards and yards after catch.
Further, Clifford is throwing more screens. He has completed 27 of 29 screen-pass attempts, nearly as many as he attempted the entire nine-game 2020 season (31).
Though the Lions have split their run-pass plays this season (133 rushing, 128 passing), they seem comfortable throwing to set up the run. If Clifford continues his improved play, the offense can ride that system. At least until they get to Iowa.
The Hawkeyes have 13 sacks and six interceptions, so they no doubt will stress Clifford's effectiveness. Yet Iowa also allows just 85 yards rushing per game. So Yurcich will have his hands full.
First things first, though. The Lions need to inject some confidence into their run game this week against Indiana. Or maybe they'll just sling it and live the big-play lifestyle, just as the 2016 team did on its way to the Big Ten title.