Despite all the upgrades Penn State's offense has made this season, head coach James Franklin longs for something else: more toughness.
The No. 4 Lions, who visit third-ranked Iowa on Saturday, have lapsed on third down all season, ranking 13th in the Big Ten in conversion rate at 35.94 percent. (Iowa isn't much better at 36.23 percent).
Penn State has struggled notably on third-and-short, the downs that matter to important Big Ten games. The Lions went 1-for-5 on third-and-short (1-4 yards) last week vs. Indiana and 0-for-3 against Villanova.
Certainly, Penn State appears capable of compensating through its passing game, but Franklin still can't get past the lack of short-yardage intimidation his run game has demonstrated to opponents.
"I think more than anything, it's a mentality," Franklin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "We have to be more physical. There are times that we're on a double team, and we're not getting as much movement as we need to get. ... At the end of the day, if we are who I think we are, we've got to be able to line up and get a yard or two when we need it — when everybody in the stadium knows you're going to run the ball."
This phenomenon has been among the biggest puzzles of Penn State's 5-0 start. Before the season, Frankin considered his running-back room among the best in the country, with five players who had starting experience. And the offensive line, which returned four players who had started games, expected to be dominant.
But neither is there yet, and third down offers the evidence. According to advanced-stat firm Sports Info Solutions, Penn State has rushed 15 times for 40 yards on third-down plays of 1-4 yards. Subtract Keyvone Lee's 21-yard gain against Indiana, and the Lions average .74 yards per carry on third-and-short.
Further, according to SIS, Penn State's backs have not broken a tackle on third-and-short this season. All this despite Penn State running sets with three tight ends, two and three backs and even using tight end Tyler Warren in a Wildcat package in short-yardage, goal-line situations.
"I’d like to see, at times, us be more physical and pound it up there and get the 4-5 yards and trust it," Franklin said.
Interestingly, Penn State's backfield has not produced the rotational effectiveness of past seasons. Franklin has rotated backs by series, starting with Noah Cain, then going to Keyvone Lee or John Lovett and Devyn Ford.
However, none of the backs has asserted himself as the primary ballcarrier, and the system has been uneven. The Lions rushed for 209 yards against Indiana, but quarterback Sean Clifford had 58 of those. And Clifford is second on the team in rushing attempts with 40.
Franklin said two weeks ago that Cain, who has started all five games, was dealing with an injury issue he sustained against Auburn. Cain has appeared to be limited the past two weeks, though he leads the team with 59 carries.
Franklin said Tuesday that he expects Cain to be "full go" against Iowa.
"He's playing well," Franklin said. "I think Noah can do even more. We've seen flashes of Noah doing some really good things, but again that's all of us. That's the tight ends, that's the offensive line, that's the running backs, that's the coaches, that's the quarterback not running into looks that we shouldn't be running into when we have relief throws.
"... I think we've all seen what Noah has the ability to do. And then in terms of what he's working through, that's part of football. Everybody this time of the year, with the competition we've played, is working through things, and Noah always approaches those things the right way. He lives in the training room, whether he's got a bump or a bruise or not."
As for the backfield rotation, expect it to continue, at least until someone takes control.
"Obviously, you'd love for somebody to really jump out and say, 'I'm gonna get the majority of the reps, and the other guys are going to rotate in.' I wouldn't say that's necessarily happened yet," Franklin said. "And you can have both ends of that. You can have three guys who are playing at a really high level and you want to keep them all involved. Or you want to have one guy who kind of takes control of the room, and the other guys are kinda complementary pieces. Both are fine.
"But it's somewhat similar to how I thought it would play out. I think I probably thought we’d have a little bit more production, but that's not just on them. That's on all of us."