STATE COLLEGE — Penn State’s recent run of NFL-ready running backs have earned it a reputation for being a pipeline of sorts at the position.
The recent losses of Saquon Barkley (New York Giants) and Miles Sanders (Philadelphia Eagles) and their combined 5,492 career yards stoked some offseason concern about the program’s outlook at running back this year.
While Penn State’s backfield might be young, Saturday proved it most certainly doesn’t lack the experience and talent. The Nittany Lions rushed for 331 yards to the tune of 7.1 yards per carry.
“I was extremely impressed,” said Penn State redshirt junior center Michal Menet. “All of our backs (Saturday) played extremely well. I was very happy for all of them. A lot of guys got to score their first touchdown throughout the whole entire offense. So, I think that was great for a lot of guys.”
Five Penn State running backs found the end zone on Saturday, three of which have classifications no higher than redshirt sophomore. Redshirt junior walk-on Nick Eury added the Nittany Lions’ final score of the game with an 8-yard run that ended with him pulling a host of Vandal defenders into the end zone for a touchdown. The play elicited raucous cheers from the Penn State sideline and the more than 104,000 Nittany Lion fans who packed Beaver Stadium.
“To see Nick Eury score a touchdown and how our sideline reacted, I was a little worried that we were going to get penalties because guys were running on the field without helmets,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
Eury is Penn State’s lone walk-on running back. He played in just one game in 2017 before taking the field on Saturday.
Three running backs were listed among Penn State’s starters last Tuesday when the school released its pregame depth chart: sophomore Ricky Slade, redshirt sophomore Journey Brown and freshman Noah Cain. Freshman Devyn Ford rested at fourth on the list.
Each did their part to allay concerns about the strength of the position.
Slade tallied the game’s first carry on Penn State’s second offensive series and Brown entered the game for the Nittany Lions’ third drive. Brown, a Meadville High graduate, capped the drive with a 23-yard run that gave Penn State its first touchdown of the season.
Slade and Brown alternated drives during the first quarter before Franklin unleashed his full complement of running backs in the second.
Brown and Slade combined for 47 yards and three touchdowns in just over two quarters of play.
Cain received one carry in the second period, while Ford finished the second with a pair of carries. Ford’s first collegiate run went for 1 yard, and two plays later, he dashed 81 yards for his first Penn State touchdown.
“Coming into the game we knew we were all going to play and get a chance to spin,” Brown said. “Just to see all the young guys, see how much they prepared and see them grow a lot in this game, it was really fun,” Brown said.
Ford finished with a game-high 107 yards.
Brown caught two passes for 31 yards and added eight yards rushing and one touchdown on Penn State’s opening drive in the third quarter before he and the rest of the Nittany Lions starters retreated to the sideline for the duration of the game.
Penn State rolled up 130 yards rushing in the second half on carries from Ford, Cain and Eury.
The Nittany Lions already know what they have in Brown and Slade. Brown possesses a combination of speed and power which Slade complements with his ability to burst through the offensive line.
On Saturday, Ford and Cain gave the Penn State coaching staff a glimpse of how just how much they can enhance the backfield. Cain capped his inaugural college contest with two touchdowns, and he rushed for 44 yards on nine carries.
Whether Franklin plans to redshirt either freshman remains to be seen, but thanks to the NCAA’s four-game redshirt rule, Ford and Cain can play in up to four contests and still preserve redshirt status.
Though the days of Barkley and Sanders running through and around opponents are but memories, the running back position at Penn State appears to be just fine. Rather than rely on one player to handle the bulk of the carries, the Nittany Lions now have multiple options, which is always a good thing in the daunting Big Ten.
“I have been here for two-and-a-half years, so I learned a lot of stuff just running behind Saquon and Miles, and even running behind Ricky Slade you learn a lot of stuff,” Brown said. “Just picking up with the running backs in our room and the coach we have teaches us a lot of stuff, and it showed (Saturday) that we all played really well.”
Elton Hayes covers Penn State for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.