Rudel: Lions not running away from their weakness
UNIVERSITY PARK — The Nittany Lions can say they’re 4-0, but they can’t say they’re running over everybody.
Penn State came into Saturday’s game with Villanova as the next-to-worst rushing team in the Big Ten, and those numbers didn’t go up in Saturday’s 38-17 win over the FCS Division Wildcats before 105,790 at Beaver Stadium.
The Lions wound up with 80 yards rushing on 34 carries. That’s 2.4 yards per carry.
They did, however, move the ball effectively through the air as Sean Clifford threw four touchdowns and a career-best 401 yards.
Villanova couldn’t guard Parker Washington (5-148, two touchdowns), Jahan Dotson (7-117, 1TD) and KeAndre Lambert-Smith (2-88, 1TD) as the Lion receivers had tons of running room after the catch.
That may be because Villanova loaded up against the run or it may be because the Nittany Lions’ running game – its backs and offensive line – is not very good.
So far, that’s been the case, and it’s been a pattern.
Penn State averaged 2.8 per carry at Wisconsin – where it won despite just one rushing first down – and 2.8 against Auburn.
With outsized Villanova in town Saturday, establishing the run game was a priority, and the lack of results dominated the post-game questioning.
James Franklin didn’t shy away from it.
“Offensively we threw the ball extremely well,” he said. “Obviously, we have to get the running game going.”
Franklin said it will become more of a priority in practice.
“Tuesday and Wednesday will be physical days, and they need to be heavy emphasis on running the ball,” he said. “We need to be physical and detailed oriented.”
Franklin sensed the team had become a little full of itself, saying he wasn’t pleased with the intensity of Wednesday’s practice in particular.
“This week was a little bit of an issue,” he said. “We did not practice the way I think we should … I don’t think we had the same edge. I think they’re getting patted on the back and reading articles.”
Though he started, No. 1 tailback Noah Cain was limited to one play as a precaution for an injury sustained against Auburn. Keyvone Lee and John Lovett divided the remaining 18 carries, but they only managed 66 yards.
The coaching staff tinkered with the line, plugging in Bryce Effner at guard for Harvard transfer Eric Wilson and then having Wilson snap in the fourth quarter.
“(Offensive line) coach (Phil) Trautwein is a technician,” Wilson said. “He’s going to get us right. I thought they (Villanova) played very physical and very tough. We need to do the same thing.”
Franklin agreed but wasn’t going to dampen the moment.
“I never want to go into a locker room after a win, and it doesn’t feel like a win,” he said.
He said that would wait a day.
“If we have the team we think we do, they want us to coach them hard and make the corrections,” he said. “There are things we have to get fixed and get fixed quick.”
Sean Clifford was sacked three times but enjoyed a career day. He defended the line.
“You can’t throw for 400 yards and have a bad O-line,” he said.
But he also felt “we kind of stagnated in the first half. We could have done a lot more.”
Such is the plight of an unbeaten team with big dreams that knows it can’t be one-dimensional against the stronger teams that await.
“We’re 4-0,” Wilson said. “I think we have a great future ahead of us.”
They might – if they can establish a running game they can count on.