Penn State running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider recognizes the frustration in his players and the fans regarding the team's run game this season. He feels it himself.
"I think you just look for improvements, because it's something that's new for all of us," Seider said. "I mean, let's not sit here and kid ourselves. It's new for me. I've never been part of something like this. I know for the Penn State faithful, when you're talking about being a program that prides itself on running the ball, this is something new."
Penn State's run game is mired in a season of unproductiveness that it rarely has experienced. The Lions are rushing for 108.1 yards per game, on pace to rank as the second-lowest average in school history (behind 2014's 101.9 ypg).
Penn State doesn't have a 100-yard rusher and its season-high is Keyvone Lee's 74-yard performance against Indiana, which included a 44-yard carry, The program has 39 individual running plays longer than 74 yards in its history.
If no one puts together a 100-yard rushing game, this would mark the first Penn State season without one since 1978. Of course, that team still rushed for more than 2,500 yards and featured an historic defense that allowed just 8.8 points per game in an 11-1 season.
Further, according to Seider, Penn State's running backs have generated just 10 explosive run plays, which the team defines as 12 or more yards, this season. "We've had games where we've had more than that," Seider said.
Six of those plays have gone for 20+ yards and none for touchdowns. By contrast, Penn State produced 13 such plays (four for touchdowns) in the nine-game 2020 season.
So what's the issue? During a media call Thursday, Seider defined multiple issues, including injuries, an offense still adjusting to its new scheme, opposing defenses stacking their formations against the run and backs occasionally trying to do too much.
But Penn State continues looking for that breakthrough, which could develop Saturday at Maryland. The Terps rank 13th in the Big Ten in rushing defense (161 yards per game) and allowed Minnesota to run for 326 three weeks ago.
"So that's what I keep preaching as a coach," Seider said. "You haven't forgotten how to play the game. I damn sure haven't forgotten how to coach and probably invested more this year than I ever have because we had more time with COVID. So I'm not losing sight of that. And I tell my guys the same thing: Keep pressing forward, and this thing is gonna turn. And when it turns, we're gonna really take off."
Breaking in a new offense
Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has said that the run game would take longer to mature this season because of the new blocking schemes and formations. Seider has witnessed those growing pains, particularly when the offense shifts to its tempo style.
"A lot of it is, schematically we've changed a little bit," he said. "And the way we block things kind of probably hurt us earlier. With so much tempo, you play laterally a little bit and not more vertical. So we've done a good job the last couple of weeks fixing that, and it's kind of helping us a little bit."
Though Penn State rushed for just 33 yards on 29 attempts at Ohio State, Seider said he saw some positive signs. The Lions went 5-for-6 on third downs of 1-4 yards and converted three third downs by running the ball.
"The numbers don't say we had a lot of rushing yards, but we were efficient," Seider said. "We got first downs that we didn't get earlier in the year."
How defenses are playing against Penn State
Seider noted that opposing teams are loading more players into their run defense than they have in the past, even against Saquon Barkley or Miles Sanders. Even Villanova, which held Penn State to 80 yards rushing, stacked the box against Penn State's run game.
"One thing nobody's talked about enough is, we've been playing against more loaded boxes than we have in the past," Seider said. "You look back, even when say Saquon was here, even when Miles was here, even in 2019 when we were really explosive. I think maybe because of how we changed a little bit last year with [former offensive coordinator] Kirk [Ciarrocca] to Mike still getting in some of those big sets, people have been crowding us a little bit more, which has allowed our passing offense to take off a little bit. So it's something that we are very aware of, just like everybody else, and we're working diligently to try to get this thing turned."
Running back availability has been inconsistent
Penn State's running back room essentially has installed a revolving door to handle its constant changes. John Lovett missed the first two games for undisclosed reasons, then was injured at Iowa along with Devyn Ford, who has not played since.
Seider said that Lee was "nicked" against Illinois after making his first start, and Noah Cain still appears to be coming back from the injury that caused him to miss the 2020 season.
As a result, Penn State has continued to play its rotation of backs without anyone being able to seize the lead role. Cain is the only back to carry 20 times in a game, which he did once, against Ball State.
"It's just the constant of it," Seider said. "We continue to try to get healthy and be the best backfield we can, because I know we can be a pretty special room. Right now, we've just got to continue to go day by day and try to take care of these guys as much as we can."
Searching for Noah Cain
Perhaps expectations were too high for Cain, who missed most of 2020 after averaging 5.27 yards per carry as a freshman in 2019. Cain is averaging 3.1 per carry this season and has struggled to deliver the yards after contact he did in 2019.
That year, Cain generated 61 percent of his yards (269 of 443) after contact and was stuffed only five times when hit at the line of scrimmage, according to Sports Info Solutions. This year, Cain's YAC production is 41 percent (106 of 258) and he has been stuffed 17 times.
Cain has been limited at times; he accumulated 47 of his 83 carries in the first three games. Cain also fumbled on Penn State's first offensive snap at Ohio State following a defensive turnover, marking the team's first lost fumble of the season.
Seider said he has told Cain, "We don't need you to be a superhero. We just need you to be Noah."
"There are moments when Noah looks like the Noah Cain we all remember from '19," Seider said. "And there are moments where you can see him frustrated and fighting through some things."
One last thought
Penn State has received commitments from two of the nation's top 2022 running backs in Nicholas Singleton and Kaytron Allen. So Seider was asked whether this season changes his messaging to potential recruits.
He made an assessment with which many would agree.
"Kids watch football, they know who we are," Seider said. "They see a good football team that fought hard last week and had a chance to win. They know what happened in the Iowa game.
"I mean, let's be honest, man, call a spade a spade: A healthy Sean Clifford and that Iowa game and Illinois game, it's a different story, right? I know people don't want to hear that, but that's the freakin' truth, and I'll stick to it."