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Impact Play: A Straight Line Is The Shortest Distance

Noah Cain ran through a sea of bodies for the most important first down of the game.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State was in a tight game against Iowa, leading 17-12, needing one more first down to win the game. It was 3rd and 3 with 2:18 left on the game clock.

The Lions turned to the hot hand on Saturday, freshman running back Noah Cain. He needed just three yards to ice the game, six to surpass 100 for the second time in his career. He got 8, much of which was after contact. Three plays later Sean Clifford took a knee and Penn State collected the win.

Setting the Stage

Penn State had two wide receivers split to the top of the screen. Two tight ends were in the game, with Pat Freiermuth lined up behind right tackle Will Fries and Nick Bowers lined up on the line beside left tackle Rasheed Walker. Iowa had 8 men in the box trying to stop the run.

At first glance it looked like Cain simply knifed through the center of the defense, stopping just briefly at the line of scrimmage and then again just short of the first down. No problem. A simple play.

In slow motion, with the camera showing what was going on inside the tackle box, you can see that there were a lot of moving parts. Corner back Matt Hankins (8) was the first to get to Cain, knocking his ankles together as he dove through the backfield.

Cain kept his balance, using his left hand to steady himself as his feet separated from the impact. As this was happening, he continued up the field through a tiny hole between Rasheed Walker (53) and Steven Gonzalez (74). Gale Sayers used to say that all he needed to get through the line of scrimmage was 18 inches of daylight. Cain didn’t have too much more than that between the two linemen.

Once on the other side and back upright, Cain was hit by Jack Koerner while he was still short of the first down. Had Koerner been able to stand Cain up, he may have been short of the mark. Instead Cain shrugged off the tackle and continued up the field well past the first down marker.

Watch Cain’s feet as he went through the hole. Not only were they constantly moving, they were so close together, taking choppy little steps, that the contact he was taking above the waist barely impacted his footwork. It was a demonstration of power, balance and discipline. He hit the hole without hesitation although there wasn’t much of a hole until he ran into Gonzalez’ back.

At the tail end Will Fries gave Cain a little help, pushing him from behind, while Gonzalez joined in, pushing Fries. It was a great play in tight quarters.

In all, Cain was hit in the right foot by Hankins, then in the left ear-hole of his helmet by Rasheed Walker’s right elbow, then went right shoulder to back against Gonzalez, all before he got to the line of scrimmage. He put his left hand down in the ground, broke another tackle, then dragged a safety almost five yards before finally going down.

Watching the path that he took is impressive; straight up the field, amid all of the big bodies and the contact that came with it. It’s almost like he wanted it that way. I’d like to think he did.

Here is video of the play with the sound from inside Kinnick Stadium. If you are wondering whether it is safe to listen to this or not, be assured that I cut the video just before Sean McDonough had a chance to say, “Cain was able.”