Noah Cain made his case again Saturday as Penn State’s best running back.
The true freshman sparked the lagging offense in the second half, running eight times in the final quarter for 82 yards and a score. He finished the 35-7 win over Purdue on Saturday afternoon with 12 total carries for 105 yards.
James Franklin wasn’t ready to anoint him the starter right after the big win. But it’s clear the head coach took notice.
“Obviously, after today, you could make some arguments to put Noah at the top of the depth chart,” Franklin said. “I don’t know if we’ve gotten to the point where someone’s consistent in practice and in games that separated themselves from the pack, so I still think we are going to play four guys. But there could be a guy that’s the lead starter.”
Cain has been praised for his consistency in games, his stout 206-pound frame able to pick up a handful of yards with every carry. So there was nothing surprising about his performance Saturday.
Against Pitt on Sept. 14, even as the Nittany Lions’ offense struggled, Cain made the most out of the single series he was plugged in. With the game tied 10-10 in the third quarter, Cain rushed six times for 40 yards and a score — and caught a 13-yard pass.
Again, in one series, he accounted for 53 of the drive’s 88 yards. And he had what proved to be the game-winning touchdown. Franklin said after that 17-10 win that Cain deserved the ball more in the final quarter.
On Saturday against Purdue, Franklin didn’t make the same mistake twice. Despite Penn State gaining 42 yards in the third quarter, Cain got the ball often in the fourth — and made the most of it.
“I was finishing my blocks and I look up, and I just see him zoom past me, and he was just running hard,” offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez said. “It took a couple of guys to take him down, and we kind of feed off that.”
Cain now leads all of Penn State’s running backs with 35 carries. Take away every back’s longest run, and Cain is averaging more than a half-yard better per carry than everyone else.
He could be the answer against Iowa, Penn State’s next opponent.
Defensive line dominates: Ten sacks. Ten! Does anything more really need to be said?
OK, how about this: The defensive line contributed eight of those 10 sacks. The line limited Purdue to minus-19 yards rushing. And the line also had four quarterback hurries. Also, those 10 sacks just so happened to be the most by Penn State in two decades, since LaVar Arrington and the Nittany Lions tallied a school-record 11 against Illinois in 1999.
Yetur Gross-Matos had two sacks, and Shaka Toney stole the show with three in just the first half. “This was a good game for me,” Toney told reporters, “but I think I can do a lot better, actually.”
It was one of the most dominant performances by Penn State’s defensive line this century. Every starting defensive lineman got in on the sack party, and two backups — DE Jayson Oweh and DT PJ Mustipher — also had solo sacks.
At the end of the season, when we look back at the defensive line’s best performances, this one might be at the very top.
Sean Clifford’s first half: Clifford may not have ended how he started, but it was hard to find fault with his hot start.
The redshirt sophomore was a one-man wrecking crew in the first half. He finished 11-of-14 passing for 205 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. And he led the team in rushing with 32 yards and another score. At one point, he even completed nine straight passes.
Clifford has shown a lot of improvement since early September, and that definitely falls under “good.” Even if his second half wasn’t perfect Saturday, his performance was another step in the right direction — and he’s proving himself as a true dual threat.
“His confidence is gaining each week,” wideout Jahan Dotson added.
No letup in the defense: Give the defensive line plenty of credit. But the defense as a whole played lights-out Saturday afternoon, and it didn’t let up for four quarters.
In fact, you can even make the argument the defense got stronger as the game went on. In the second quarter, Penn State allowed 48 total yards. In the third quarter, that total was 19 yards. In the fourth, even with backups and reserves on the field, it was 37 yards.
The Nittany Lions allowed 104 total yards to Purdue on Saturday and, although the line may have made the headlines, there was plenty of credit to go around. Safety Lamont Wade wasn’t even ready to say the line played the best out of the defense’s three units.
“They did their thing but, on the back end, (Purdue) averaged 300-something passing yards and they only got 120-some,” Wade said with a smile, “so it’s always about the DBs.”
In case you forgot, Penn State’s defense reminded you Saturday: They are elite.
Jahan Dotson shows playmaking ability: KJ Hamler isn’t the Nittany Lions’ only shifty wideout; Dotson showed some flashes on Saturday, too. He had the longest offensive play of the day.
With 5:34 left in the first quarter, on second-and-11, he recorded a 72-yard touchdown catch. He caught the ball about 17 yards downfield and — with two defenders to his right, one behind him and one to his left — he juked to the left, evaded the defender and headed to the sideline. From there, he followed blocking wideouts Daniel George and Hamler into the end zone.
Dotson isn’t Penn State’s fastest receiver. At 5-foot-11, he’s not the biggest. And he’s not the most experienced. But he’s shifty, boasts good hands and runs solid routes. Sometimes, the young receiver gets lost in the shadows of Hamler and TE Pat Freiermuth. But it’s getting harder and harder to ignore him.
Saturday’s 72-yard TD catch, the longest of Dotson’s career, was just another reason defenses will have to respect him moving forward.
Alternate uniforms: Saturday’s game was Homecoming but also doubled as the “Generations of Greatness” game, where Penn State wears alternate uniforms that celebrate different uniform traditions from throughout program history.
A few examples: Numbers were on the helmets, just as they were in 1959-1961 and 1967-1974. Jerseys have block numbers, just like the mid-1950s to 1966. And the cleats were white, just like in the 1979 Sugar Bowl.
It’s a great way for a program steeped in tradition like Penn State to celebrate its history while at the same time offering something a little new. Most fans enjoyed the change, players couldn’t stop talking about the shoes — and it was a win-win all-around.
Penn State should make sure it does this at least once every season, from now until the end of time.
Offense sleepwalking after hot start: Penn State scored four touchdowns on its first four drives ... and then proceeded to score twice in the next 12 . After not punting once in the first half, the Nittany Lions then opened the second half with five straight punts.
Penn State’s offense looked more like Purdue in the second half than it resembled its own first-half offense. In the third quarter, Penn State ran 20 plays — and picked up 42 total yards.
Here’s the part where we remind you the Boilermakers entered Saturday’s game as the nation’s No. 113 defense, making it the worst FBS defense that Penn State will face all season.
Needless to say, James Franklin was not pleased.
“It felt like maybe after getting those early points, that maybe we took a deep breath and exhaled,” Franklin said, “and we don’t live like that around here.”
With offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne calling the plays, this offense has a very high ceiling — and a very low floor. Sometimes, there’s no telling what Penn State offense will show up. So, if it doesn’t become more consistent, it could be in for a few (very) rough outings.
Special-teams miscues: Overall, special teams this season has taken a big step up over last year. But Saturday saw the unit struggle more than it has all season.
Highlights were few and far between. Kicker Jordan Stout — who’s been close to perfect this year — had one kickoff go out of bounds. Fellow kicker Jake Pinegar missed his first field goal of the season on a 35-yard attempt. Punter Blake Gillikin had mixed success, booting his last punt just 31 yards, and Dan Chisena was called for interference during another punt.
And returner KJ Hamler kept going backward in an effort to make a big play. On punt returns, he recovered his own fumble on one play — and had returns of minus-2, minus-3 and minus-6 yards.
Joe Lorig has clearly improved the special teams as a first-year coordinator. But Saturday was a step back after a solid start to the season.
Purdue’s injury situation: Jeff Brohm’s squad was not at full strength; that much was obvious Saturday.
Brohm’s two best players, All-American WR Rondale Moore and QB Elijah Sindelar, are both out multiple weeks. But that’s not even the half of it. WRs TJ Sheffield and Jared Sparks, a top backup and projected starter, respectively, were both out. Backup RBs Tario Fuller and Richie Fuller remain out. And OL DJ Washington is out indefinitely after an ankle injury last week.
And that’s just the offense. The health on defense isn’t great either; LB Markus Bailey, a co-captain, is out for the season. And defensive tackle Anthony Watts was injured Saturday.
“It’s hard, but we have bodies that have to go in there and play,” Brohm said Saturday. “That’s where we are at, and we have to make the most of it.”
Purdue was considered a fringe bowl contender before the season. Now, the hope is that Brohm’s recruiting efforts aren’t stifled by a “down” year. Brohm is obviously a great coach and, right now, he doesn’t have a great team — due, in large part, to injuries.
Penn State’s early-season schedule: Ugh. The Nittany Lions’ first five opponents have an overall record of 12-16, and the opposition has been even worse than that number suggests.
Idaho is an FCS team, one of Buffalo’s wins came against Robert Morris, one of Maryland’s victories came against Howard (and Rutgers, which is like an FCS team), and Pitt barely beat FCS Delaware. It hasn’t been a very exciting start to the blue-and-white season, in terms of opponents.
But, on the positive end, that’s about to change. The Cupcake Stretch is over; now comes the hard part. In the next three weeks, the Nittany Lions will take on Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State. And on Nov. 23 comes Ohio State.
So long to the boring part of the schedule; hello to the matchups that will test PSU’s mettle.