Noah Cain walked stone-faced toward the south tunnel at Beaver Stadium. The redshirt freshman showed no emotion as he moved into the tunnel and off the field, where he was a driving force just over an hour earlier. The running back only played one drive in the game, but he made it count.
The freshman gained 40 yards on six attempts — and a touchdown — in Penn State’s 17-10 win over Pitt on Saturday.
“I looked in his eyes and could see he had it,” fellow RB Journey Brown said. “You could see the dog in him. He was real chill, real calm, he was ready.”
But Cain was only part of Penn State’s running back success. Brown led the pack with 109 yards — including an 85-yard run that was the second-longest non-scoring run in Penn State history. The pair combined with true sophomore Ricky Slade and true freshman Devyn Ford for 162 rushing yards and 80 receiving yards on 25 carries and five receptions.
Overall, the running-back-by-committee approach worked much better than last week against Buffalo, when the four combined for 39 rushing yards on 13 carries and no receptions. Sophomore quarterback Sean Clifford led the team in rushing yards against the Bulls with 66 yards on 11 carries.
But last week’s down performance hasn’t shaken the running back corps’ confidence in the by-committee approach.
“We have a mentality of, if one of us eats, we all eat,” Brown said. “That’s how we operate. I don’t care how many carries I get. Whatever I can do to get the team the win, that’s what I do.”
When asked if he’d prefer more reps, Brown was was blunt — no. Using Cain as an example, he said all it takes is being in for one drive to have a big impact.
Making the most of each carry is also something head coach James Franklin has seen in the freshman.
“He’s just so productive,” Franklin said about Cain. “He’s going to get a 4-yard run and fall for 6. He’s going to get a 3-yard run and fall for 5 ... I thought he played really well.”
In just one drive, Cain not only helped his team earn in a win in the 100th meeting with cross-state rival Pitt, but he also caught the eye of his teammates.
“It’s awesome to see him do that,” sophomore TE Pat Freiermuth said. “He’s a true freshman and that’s his game, running between the tackles. He did that to the best of his ability today.”
Added Brown: “I feel like he did a great job today. I feel like he knew what he was capable of, and he showed it.”
While Cain was part of an impressive drive down the field, Brown was still the team’s leading performer. In addition to the 10 carries for 109 yards, the redshirt sophomore also had one reception for 16 yards.
Even though he was told earlier in the week that he’d get his first career start Saturday, Brown said he didn’t prepare any differently for game day.
“I always prepare like I’m the starter,” he said. “I came out and did my same routine and stuff. Of course, I felt a little bit of excitement knowing my name would be on the big screen, but once the game started I locked in. It felt like just another day because I’d be rotating. It felt good to have that No. 1 spot, but at the same time, I always felt like I was prepared as a starter.”
Brown made a strong case for keeping the starting job, which he took over from Slade after the true sophomore started in the Nittany Lions’ wins over Idaho and Buffalo.
The new starter may have done what it takes to keep the job, but he said that’s not up to him to decide.
“(The running back room) votes for the running back (starter),” Brown said. “But you know, it comes down to the big man up top and then (running backs) coach (Ja’Juan) Seider.”
The rotation is dictated by Seider throughout the game, according to Brown, with the running backs coach making sure each player knows when he’s the next man up and what to watch for with the defense.
“Coach Seider does a really good job of doing the rotation stuff,” Brown said. “He would tell us ‘Journey you’re up’, ‘Ricky you’re on tap’, ‘you two stay ready’, or it’s vice-versa with Noah and Devyn on tap. ... Once one of us comes up we talk about what we see on the field, so everyone understands.”
Freiermuth said the group’s collective talent helps the team because they know there won’t be a drop-off when a new back comes in the game.
“It’s awesome having four backs that are ready to go,” he said. “It’s good because they stay fresh in the backfield and they can do what they need to do in the reps they get.”
The team’s head coach knows he can trust all four backs, and that bodes well for the running game moving forward.
“We have confidence in all four backs and they all did some really good things,” Franklin said. “Obviously Journey with over 100 yards. I think about Ricky Slade on the big pass play with the angle route. Obviously Noah Cain as well. (They’re) a bunch of guys doing really good things for us.”