Penn State coach James Franklin is a half-full kind of guy, ever the optimist.
But even he knows that his team has an offense that is half-empty so far.
The Nittany Lions have scored two victories to open the season, including Saturday’s 21-3 triumph over Akron at Beaver Stadium.
That certainly has Franklin happy.
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But throw in the 26-24 season-opening win against Central Florida and none of the major yardage in either victory has come on the ground.
And that’s a concern to any major football coach.
Against Central Florida, the Nittany Lions rushed 29 times for 57 yards, basically two yards a carry.
On Saturday, you could say the production nearly doubled, with 106 yards on 31 attempts. But 23 of those yards came on a meaningless carry by Bill Belton as the Nittany Lions ran down the clock. So that’s 83 yards on 30 carries. And that average drops under three yards per carry again.
Three runs — two by Akeel Lynch and one by Zach Zwinak — out of the Wildcat netted 41 yards. Subtract that and for the bulk of the game, Penn State had 42 yards on 27 carries.
That’s about 1.6 yards for most of the game against Akron — not exactly a school with the reputation of a Michigan State or Ohio State on defense.
And this is coming from the same three backs that help the Nittany Lions average 174 yards per game last season.
“Today was not a good day,” admitted Belton, who had just 13 yards in the eight carries prior to his late 23-yarder.
Why have the numbers been so bad?
“I think it’s just the consistency,” said Franklin, who inherited just one returning starter (Donovan Smith) on the offensive line from last season. “We don’t have the experience of a group of guys that have been working together for a long time. That’s going to come. What I said to the guys in the locker room is, there are things that we’ve got to get corrected. We’re happy that we’re 2-0 and undefeated, but we have to get better. There’s no doubt about it and that’s an area that we have to improve, the running game.”
“As a unit up front we’re aggressive, but we probably need to be more aggressive sometimes,” guard Brian Gaia said.
The players don’t need the media to point out the shortcomings on the ground. And they are just as angry about the results so far.
The lack of production has led quarterback Christian Hackenberg to throw 83 times in the first two games. Hackenberg has amassed 773 yards through the air (astounding numbers) but also has been picked off four times. He’s tried to force the ball into coverage on each of those interceptions.
“Sometimes, when everything is not popping the way it’s supposed to, you get frustrated,” he said of himself. “You get ahead of yourself sometimes.”
“It’s frustrating not being able to run the ball,” Gaia added “We want to exert our will upon them.”
In order to try to move the ball somehow on the ground, offensive coordinator John Donovan has resorted to gimmicks. The Nittany Lions tried a double reverse against the Zips and they ran multiple plays out of the wildcat formation, where the ball is directly snapped to a running back.
“We’re going to do whatever we have to do to get numbers,” Franklin said.
Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, Hackenberg overcame a so-so afternoon to throw three touchdown passes against the Zips. Penn State has just one rushing touchdown (a one-yard run by Zwinak in the opener) this season.
What is the solution? How can the backs quit getting hit in the backfield?
There’s no easy answer says Franklin.
“It’s everything. It’s never one thing in life,” he said. “It’s a combination of things. It’s communication. It’s trusting one another. It’s effort. It’s execution and it’s the whole deal. Our thing is we’re going to keep getting better every single week and keep getting better every single day. When we do that, I think we’re going to like the results.”
That takes time.
“The guys are getting more experience up front,” Belton said. “We’ve got to do our job as running backs to be patient and stick to our rules and stick to our fundamentals. If we do that, I think the running game will click a lot quicker.”
The Nittany Lions have a game at Rutgers next week and a non-conference clash against Massachusetts to get better before the meat of the conference schedule cranks up.
Franklin knows what dividends could be afforded if the running game finally gets cranked up. He pointed to Hackenberg’s 41-yard touchdown pass to James as a perfect example.
“I think that’s what you saw there at the end of the game with the play to Jesse,” he said. “We were finally able to establish the running game and get it going. What happens is you go play-action and guys are wide open. That’s what I’m trying to get everyone to understand. It’s going to help the tight ends and everybody, once we establish the running game.”
And even though Belton is far behind the pace (52 yards) for a back that ran for 803 last season, he maintains that the glass is still half-full.
“If you look at it, we’re not running the ball well, but we’re still winning games,” the senior said said. “Imagine if we start running the ball well.”