Penn State Ends Abysmal Rushing Regular Season with Another Poor Showing
Anticipation and hype surrounded the running back room heading into Penn State’s 2021 campaign.
Junior Noah Cain was eyeing a bounce back after playing just one quarter last season. Sophomore Keyvone Lee was ready to build off a successful first year, and fifth-year senior John Lovett transferred to Happy Valley from Baylor looking to revitalize his career.
Unfortunately for the trio, anything but revitalization came in 2021. Lee was the leading rusher this season with 416 yards, and Cain had 322 to combine for 738 yards. Add in Lovett’s 177 and that makes 915 yards among the three.
In comparison, Miles Sanders had 1,274 yards on the ground in 2018 for Penn State, and Saquon Barkley had 1,496 in 2016.
The Nittany Lions had just 11 rushing touchdowns in 2021. From 2016 to 2019, Penn State had at least 34 rushing touchdowns each season.
In the team’s final regular season game Saturday afternoon in a 30-27 loss at Michigan State, Cain got one carry, Lovett got none and Lee fumbled the football as the Spartans recovered it with nine and a half minutes to go in the game and just a three-point deficit.
Head coach James Franklin, fresh off of signing a 10-year extension at Penn State, said he knows his team’s rushing attack has nagged it all season long, and especially against the Spartans.
The Nittany Lions ran a net 61 yards in the game, not counting sacks to quarterback Sean Clifford, they rushed for 78 yards.
Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III, on the other hand, got 138 yards on the ground on his own.
“We were trying to mix in the run game all day long, trying to help our offensive lineman in protection,” Franklin said after the regular-season finale. “But obviously, we weren’t able to run the ball consistently enough like we needed to.”
No running back wearing blue and white reached 100 rushing yards in a single game this season, and that reality has appeared to hit Franklin. When asked about that on Saturday, he had a very simple answer.
“The year is not over,” said Franklin, alluding to the team’s bowl appearance. “It’s important. I want to be able to run the ball.”
Oftentimes, running the ball comes down to the team’s performance in the trenches, and Franklin hinted that he’s been impressed by his offensive line in pass protection, but not so much on run plays.
All but one of Penn State’s starting offensive linemen are at least juniors, but four new offensive linemen are coming next year in the 2022 recruiting class, including 4-star Drew Shelton. Four-star running back Nicholas Singleton could also boost the Nittany Lion rushing attack in the future.
Penn State’s bowl game could be the perfect place for the rushing attack to finally get out of its slump.
Wide receiver Jahan Dotson could bypass the game to protect his NFL Draft stock, and Clifford may miss the game as well, as the senior quarterback received a long, generous hug from Franklin after the game in East Lansing.
If those were to happen, attention could turn back to the running back room. Lovett, who missed Senior Day last week against Rutgers, will have his last collegiate game, and with Singleton coming in next year, Lee and Cain may be looking to boost their own resumes for next season.
Jack McCune is a fourth-year majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Contributors
Senior / Broadcast Journalism
Jack McCune is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism from Yardley, Pennsylvania, which is outside of Philly and just across the Delaware River from New Jersey. He attended Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills, Pennsylvania. He’s a huge fan of the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers, Penn State football and Penn State basketball. He’s a sports anchor and multimedia reporter for the Centre County Report. He’s a Football Insider for CommRadio. His talk show, Broad Street Bros, airs Thursday nights at 5:45, as he talks about Philly and Penn State sports. He hopes to some day become a play-by-play announcer for football, basketball and/or baseball, and he is also interested in becoming a bartender.