Penn State Pick 6: Rethinking the running back rotation |
Penn State

Penn State Pick 6: Rethinking the running back rotation

Penn State running back Journey Brown looks to elude Pittsburgh defensive back Dane Jackson in the second half against Pittsburgh in State College, on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford passes as Pittsburgh defensive back Damar Hamlin rushes in State College on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019.

Plenty to sift through from Penn State’s 17-10 victory over Pitt on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Here’s a pick-six’s worth.

Shortening the backfield rotation

Three days before playing Pitt, Penn State coach James Franklin outlined his strategy for rotating the running backs: two series for the starter, with the other three backs then alternating series with the starter.

That’s essentially how Penn State used its four backs against the Panthers, almost to a rigid fault. On his second series, starter Journey Brown broke a terrific 85-yard carry on which he should have scored (Brown admitted to slowing down to set up a teammate’s block).

Devyn Ford scored three plays later. After that, Ricky Slade, who started the first two games, replaced Brown.

And in the third quarter, freshman Noah Cain turned his power-running form into a 13-play scoring drive. He gained 53 yards on seven touches. He didn’t see the ball again.

After the game, Franklin said that he probably should have sent Cain back onto the field in the fourth quarter, when the Lions tried to run their 4-minute offense. They converted one first down but threw an incomplete pass on third down, returning the ball to Pitt with 1:56 remaining.

“On that last drive we probably should have subbed him in, because that would have been a good situation for his style of running,” Franklin said of Cain, who has scored touchdowns in all three games. “But I thought he played really well. We have confidence in all four backs, and they all did some really good things.”

They did: Brown had the long run, Slade caught a 40-yard pass out of the backfield and Ford scored a touchdown. Problem is, none gets a chance to expand on those plays.

Franklin has noted that, within his rotation, there’s an option to play the back who has the “hot hand.” Cain clearly had it in the third quarter. But after his series, the Lions went to a two-back set with Brown and Slade and punted.

“Looking in his eyes, I could see he had it,” Brown said of Cain. “Usually young guys in those positions kind of get nervous, but you could just see the dog in him.”

All four backs are skilled, their talents are unique and the early experience will benefit them. Now, it’s up to the coaches to manage them better.

Missing his shots

Quarterback Sean Clifford said he was “really excited to watch this tape” of the Pitt game, mostly because he found plenty to correct. Here are a few things he, and his teammates, will be rewatching.

The deep shots: Coordinator Ricky Rahne called for numerous first-down passes over the top, none of which connected. Clifford threw long a few times to receivers KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson, including one post route on which Hamler had 3 yards of separation.

Clifford, who went 14 for 30, has not been intercepted yet this season. He also knew that hitting one of those throws could have changed the game.

“I missed my shots today, and that’s on me,” Clifford said. “It’s not on anybody else. I need to have an enhanced focus during the week on those shots. I think that you get used to hitting big plays. I wouldn’t say I lost focus on that, but I think I got a little comfortable. The explosives passes, I’m putting that on myself.”

Two more offensive questions

What happened to tight end Pat Freiermuth? After catching a 16-yard pass on the game’s first play, Freiermuth didn’t get another reception and was targeted only once.

What happened on third and four? Late in the fourth quarter, as Penn State tried to run its 4-minute offense, Clifford threw a deep pass in the neighborhood of Dotson and Hamler that fell incomplete.

Franklin said that someone ran the wrong play, negating its effectiveness. The play also stopped the clock and helped Pitt preserve a timeout. That Penn State snapped the ball with 15 seconds on at least one play clock didn’t help the series, either.

Best player on the field?

Two players can compete for that title: Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons and Pitt receiver Taysir Mack.

Mack was exceptional, catching 12 passes for 125 yards and dragging Pitt to two game-tying chances in the fourth quarter. His leaping catch at the 1-yard line deserved a better follow-up from his coach.

But Parsons’ nine-tackle game was dominant. He played multiple positions (including a stand-up rushing role), broke up a first-half pass and pressured Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett twice. Parsons also made tackles for loss on a rush defense that held Pitt under 1 yard per attempt.

“I hope it’s another good game under my belt,” Parsons said. “But I’m really just trying to get better. I don’t think I should really be satisfied right now.”

Getting off the field

Still a problem, as these numbers indicate. Pickett went 12 for 15 for 188 yards on third or fourth downs. He converted first downs with eight of those throws, and all three on fourth down. Four went for 23 yards or longer.

Credit Pitt and Pickett for the calls and execution, but Penn State’s conversion defense has been suspect early. Buffalo and Pitt combined to run seven drives of 10 plays or longer. The good news: Those produced just one touchdown.


Penn State improved to 19-6 at home against Pitt. A total of 69 of the series’ 100 games have been played at Pitt.

Penn State is one of three FBS teams that hasn’t allowed a kickoff return. Jordan Stout has kicked off 25 times: 24 for touchbacks, one for a fair catch.

Pitt’s remarkable scoring pattern continued. The Panthers scored all 10 of their points in the second quarter. Through three games, the Panthers have scored 38 of their 44 points (and all five touchdowns) in second quarters.

Categories: Sports | Penn State
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