Things are not as they seem in Happy Valley. Yes, the No.5 ranked Nittany Lions are 2-0, winning by comfortable margins against teams they should indeed be beating comfortably. The defense is stout, special teams are solid, and the passing game is explosive. But there is an underlying problem, a problem that Penn State is not used to having under Joe Paterno. That problem is the running game.
Coming into the season, the ground game seemed to be the strength of the Penn State offense. After all, they lost Derrick Williams, Deon Butler, and Jordan Norwood, three of the best receivers in school history, to graduation. Add that to the fact that running back Evan Royster returned after a stellar season along with his explosive backup Stephon Green. Even returning quarterback Daryll Clark rushed for ten touchdowns last year. Option plays and wildcat formations were sure to be at the forefront of the Nits attack.
The reality is though that Penn State averaged only 2.2 yards per carry versus Syracuse and has only averaged 3.3 on the season. It’s true, both Akron and Syracuse put eight men in the box in an effort to shut down the run. And for that matter, Darryl Clark has excelled in the passing game, essentially taking what the defense has given. But the fact is that even with eight men in the box on every play, those rushing numbers should be higher for a top team playing weak opponents.
Let’s take a look at rushing stats for the four teams ahead of Penn State in both the AP and Coaches Poll. Florida ranks number three on the ground with 660 yards, 8 touchdowns with averages of 8.4 ypc and 330 ypg. Alabama ranks tenth on the ground with 542 yards, six touchdowns with averages of 6.0 ypc and 271 ypg. USC ranks twenty-first with 460 yards, eight touchdowns with averages of 5.4 ypc and 230 ypg. And finally Texas ranks thirty-fifth with 390 yards, seven touchdowns with averages of 4.6 ypc and 195 ypg.
And how does Penn State, the team directly behind these four in the polls, stack up?
85th in the nation in rushing. 214 yards, 2 touchdowns, 3.3 ypc, 107 ypg. A lot of numbers that could get muddled in the last two paragraphs so lets simplify it.
Florida = 3rd in rushing
Texas = 35th in rushing
USC = 21st in rushing
Alabama = 10th in rushing
Penn State = 85th in rushing
Quite a discrepancy between the top four and number five. It should be noted that Alabama and USC played a quality opponent in their first two games while the other three played cupcakes.
Why does any of this matter? Well if Penn State thinks of themselves as a national championship contender it should matter. The past five national champions have all ranked in the top 23 in rushing. Three of those teams were in the top ten. I don’t believe any of those teams would be stopped four straight plays on the goal line by Syracuse like Penn State was this past weekend.
I digress, lets look at what is actually causing this rushing problem for Penn State. The obvious place to point the finger would be the offensive line. Last year’s unit was stellar and this year’s team must replace three of those linemen. The two linemen left over are switching positions within the o-line, most notably Stefen Wisniewski who is making the tough transition to center. But the blame is not solely on that unit. Even despite the inexperience, they were physically better than both Akron and Syracuse.
Some blame should also be put on the running backs. Usually known for great vision and decision making, Evan Royster has missed some cuts in the early going. Now this could be said for any running back on any team, but the cuts have been especially poor compared to last year’s effort. Whether he’s trying too hard or just not getting enough reps, Royster needs to let the game slow down and see the holes.
But the most blame, by far, goes to Joe Paterno. Paterno is a very wily coach even if he doesn’t let on that he is. Outside a reverse or two, there was nothing special in terms of play calling. You try running straight up the gut with an inexperienced offensive line against eight defenders in the box whose aim is solely to stop the run. This vanilla offense was not without purpose though. Considering the first three games are cupcakes, Paterno isn’t showing anything yet. The main evidence of that is Daryll Clark.
The athletic QB only has five rushing attempts through two games after a year in which he scored ten rushing touchdowns. Three of those attempts were goal line type QB sneaks and the other two were scrambles on designed passing plays. No QB draws, no option, no QB reads. This serves a dual purpose. First, it makes sure PSU doesn’t show their hand to stronger opponents down the road. And secondly, it protects Clark which is prudent considering his backup is a true freshman and the only other scholarship QB on the roster.
So there is reason for optimism regarding the Nittany Lions running game. The real plays, the gems, are stored away for now, waiting to be unleashed Sept. 26th versus Iowa. Clark will start to run more, defenses will have to be more honest, and the offensive line will (hopefully) gel. The ground attack may not be one of the best in the country but Paterno will make sure its ready to go when the big boys come to town.