Franklin still searching for No. 1 RB

Penn State running back Keyvone Lee (24) is tackled by Indiana linebacker Cam Jones (4) in the first half of their NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

The following are the main storylines from Penn State coach James Franklin’s Tuesday press conference:

Saturday’s game: at No. 3 Iowa, 4 p.m. (FOX)


For all of Penn State’s success throwing the football, the running game has yet to completely open up this season, although as Franklin pointed out, Saturday against Indiana was “a step in the right direction.”

The Nittany Lions rushed for 209 yards on 42 totes (5 yards per carry) in a 24-0 victory over the Hoosiers. Keyvone Lee emerged as the leading rusher, carrying the ball eight times for 74 yards while Sean Clifford had 58 yards on 10 carries.

The fact remains that none of the players in Penn State’s revered running back room have been able to separate themselves and Franklin eluded as much on Tuesday, challenging someone to take the lead as the feature back.

Franklin also made it clear that he’s comfortable continuing to use a rotation if no clear-cut lead back emerges. “You’d love for somebody to really jump out and say, ‘I’m going to get the majority of the reps and the other guys are going to rotate in,'” Franklin said. “I wouldn’t say that has necessarily happened yet. You could have three guys that are playing at a high level where you can keep them back or you can have one guy who takes control of the room, and the rest are complimentary pieces. Both are fine.”

Through five weeks, Penn State finds itself ranked 92nd out of 130 FBS teams in rushing offense (11th in the Big Ten) with 132.6 yards per game.

Franklin noted that the running game will be especially important against a strong Iowa defense.

“We’re going to need to establish the run and we were able to take a step last week with our run game,” Franklin said. “That is going to be really important not just for our offense’s success, but to also help our defense with time of possession. This will be one of those games where we’re going to have to grind it out and help our defense out.”


Of Iowa’s biggest strengths, its defense is the clear-cut key to its success as the Hawkeyes rank second in the country in scoring defense, surrendering just 11.6 points per game. Iowa trails only Georgia in points allowed per game (4.6 points per contest).

One of the biggest emphases for Penn State will need to be converting in the red zone, where the Hawkeyes rank 103rd in the country in red zone defense, allowing scores 90 percent of the time. On the flip side, Penn State is second in the nation in red zone defense, trailing only Cincinnati.

Turnovers have been the biggest story for Iowa, as the Hawkeyes have forced 16 turnovers in five games — including a staggering six interceptions on Friday night in a 51-14 beatdown of Maryland.

“I think that their scheme allows them to capitalize on mistakes because they have their eyes on the quarterback, probably as much as anybody in college football,” Franklin said. “They do a great job of coaching, drilling it and teaching it. The length they have (up front) also allows them to get their hands on some balls.”

Franklin knows that winning the turnover battle will be crucial in a hostile environment in a battle of Top 5 opponents at Kinnick Stadium.

“Turnovers equate to winning as much as anything,” Franklin said. “Turnovers and explosive plays can do that. Everyone knows that’s the storyline of this game. They are doing a lot of things well, but that is the thing that makes them special, and it impacts their entire team.”


Another point of emphasis in relation to the running game is Penn State’s success in short yardage situations — or lack thereof.

The Nittany Lions are converting on just under 36 percent of its third down opportunities — good enough for 91st in the country and 13th in the Big Ten. Penn State has a fourth down conversion rate of 50 percent.

Physicality at the line of scrimmage and the fear of being able to run or pass in short yardage situations is something that Franklin is still searching for from his offense.

“It hasn’t been all that consistent,” Franklin said. “I’d like to be better on third down in general, but if we were better in third and short it would help our overall percentage. I think more than anything it’s a mentality. We have got to be more physical. We are going to throw the ball sometimes in those situations, but at the end of the day, we have to be able to lineup and get a yard or two when we need it.”


Franklin often references his team’s approach each week and how it is consistent no matter the team that lines up across from the Nittany Lions on Saturday. He always praises opponents each week leading up to a game and believes more than anything, in the process.

The importance of a Top 5 matchup on the road isn’t lost on him, but he believes the success in avoiding the hype of a massive game comes from his team’s weekly routine — although he mentioned that his team needs to be perhaps a little bit more dialed in than usual.

“We have to have a complete week of practice and in preparation,” Franklin said. “Everything matters when you’re talking about two opponents coming together like this — especially with us being on the road. The margin of error is going to be small, and it all adds up. We just have to be intentional about everything that we do and I’m very specific about our process.”


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