Sometimes, James Franklin said, he feels he should just have a recorded statement.
“We have four running backs we really like,” he said a few times during his weekly press conference Tuesday. Just as he said it last week and the week before and the one before that.
Penn State’s stable of running backs has drawn that much attention, positive and negative.
This week was no different, even after freshman Noah Cain’s second consecutive 100-yard rushing performance in a 17-12 win at Iowa. But also no different this week as the Nittany Lions prepare for the White Out game against Michigan on Saturday night is Franklin’s support for the status quo.
So, the four-headed attack at running back lives on.
“I had mentioned to you guys we felt like (the four-minute offense) was going to be something that was good for Noah and his style of running, and it did show up,” Franklin said. “But besides that, we’re rotating our backs, as we’ve discussed ad nauseam, and really all of them are doing some nice things.”
While the Nittany Lions may technically be implementing a rotation, Cain is clearly the back getting the bulk of the carries as the offense flourished the last two games with him on the field. He gained 102 yards on 22 carries against Iowa. Sophomores Journey Brown and Ricky Slade and fellow freshman Devyn Ford each had just four carries. Against Purdue on Oct. 5, Cain had 105 yards on 12 carries; the other three had 16 carries combined.
But, the idea Franklin squashed Tuesday was whether there is any thought of rotating the backs situationally, not just by giving them each a drive or two. For instance, Franklin saw no need to use Slade, who is averaging just 2.1 yards per carry but may be the best receiving threat amongst the four backs and is a solid pass protector, more often on passing downs.
“It’s not like stylistically they’re so different that we have to change what we do,” he said. “Sometimes you have backs that aren’t good in the passing game, whether it’s protection or in the passing game in terms of receiving the ball out of the backfield, route running, catching the ball consistently. But all four of them do that extremely well. It doesn’t really impact us or limit us in any way.”
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Franklin received word from the Big Ten regarding the controversial replay overturn of tight end Pat Freiermuth’s third-quarter touchdown against the Hawkeyes.
He just didn’t seem interested in discussing the conference’s stance.
“I did, but it’s not appropriate to talk about here in this setting,” Franklin said after a lengthy pause. “If (the Big Ten wants) to say something, they’ll say something. I’m not going to speak on behalf of the Big Ten.”
Freiermuth had what appeared to be a 16-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown, which was ruled a score on the field by referee John O’Neill’s crew. However, after a collaboration with on-field officials, replay official Tom Kissinger reversed the ruling, placing the ball just inside the 1-yard line, a decision that received plenty of criticism not just from Penn State fans on social media, but national football analysts as well. Penn State ended up having to settle for a field goal.
The Big Ten has not made a public statement regarding the review.
Why don’t you slide?
There isn’t much to nit-pick about redshirt sophomore Sean Clifford’s performance this season. The Nittany Lions are unbeaten, he has 13 touchdown passes and just two interceptions, and he’s the team’s second-leading rusher.
While he said he’s excited about Clifford’s work to get faster, and that it has translated into results so quickly into his first season as a starter, there’s one aspect of his running that Clifford needs to improve quickly.
“The thing that he can’t do that we’ve got to spend time working on — because he’s not good at it — is sliding,” Franklin said. “Like, it’s like literally a Little League baseball slide. It’s like, it doesn’t look natural. It’s awkward. So, literally, we’re going to spend time at practice sliding, getting down.”
The comparison to a Little Leaguer sliding into a base is not inaccurate. Clifford tends to slide feet first, but on his backside and with his head up, leaving him open not just to a hard hit that would draw a flag, but incidental contact from defenders trying to get out of the way.
“I think some of it is indecision,” Franklin said. “It’s like he wants to get as much yards as possible and then he kind of changes his mind. I’s like the squirrel crossing the road, like you can’t be indecisive. He’s got to get better there.”