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MMQB: Who Do You Want to Be?

Balance for the sake of balance?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Michigan State Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

“It’s important,” head football coach James Franklin said after Saturday’s loss to Michigan State. “I want to be able to run the ball.”

This weekend, Penn State rushed for 61 total yards. Keyvone Lee once again led the team with 79 yards. It marked the twelfth time in twelve games that Nittany Lion running backs failed to eclipse the 100-yard barrier. Meanwhile, just one hour down the road, Michigan rushed for 7.2 yards per carry against Ohio State, scoring five touchdowns and rolling up 297 yards on the ground.

What’s striking about the contrast between these numbers isn’t just the stark reality of the Nittany Lions wholesale failure to run the ball. Truly, Michigan’s rushing attack is what Penn State’s was expected to be at the start of the 2021 season. Noah Cain, Devyn Ford, and Keyvone Lee were all highly sought-after recruits - each with 4 stars attached to their name. John Lovett led Baylor in rushing for two years during Matt Rhule’s tenure, including the 2019 team that landed a Sugar Bowl berth.

There was little reason to believe that Penn State’s 2021 offense would hinge on Sean Clifford’s right arm. From 2015 through 2019, Penn State’s backfield featured Saquon Barkley, Miles Sanders, and Journey Brown in succession. The first half of 2020 featured one dreadful Clifford performance after another, replete with turnovers and quarterback controversy. The back half featured Clifford in game manager mode, avoiding turnovers and leaning heavily on his supporting cast en route to a four game win streak. Certainly, the model going forward was supposed to be the same, with each of these running backs shouldering a heavy load.

As we all know, 2021 certainly did not turn out that way. Sean Clifford found his stride and fit well into new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich’s offense. Good thing, too. If Penn State had to rely on the backfield to get the job done, this team would probably have finished 5-7 instead of 7-5.

Of course, no one is pleased with 7-5. A quick scan of Twitter after Saturday’s loss makes that quite clear. And no one should be. In each of Penn State’s losses, it played competitive football, but managed to shoot itself in the foot. Saturday’s loss to the Spartans was the same story that had been written four other times earlier this year.

Penn State with a lead late in the third quarter.

Penn State with an inopportune turnover.

Penn State with a special teams miscue.

Penn State can’t run the football and fails to convert in short yardage.

Penn State can’t run the football. But honestly, should it have even tried? On Saturday, the Nittany Lions were facing the worst pass defense in college football. Not the worst in the Big Ten or the Power 5 - the worst nationally in college football. Yet here was Penn State, rushing 26 times for 61 yards and failing to convert in short yardage.

Penn State wants to run the ball. James Franklin has said it throughout the year. Mike Yurcich’s career trajectory also seems to suggest he shares that philosophy.

Penn State has searched for “balance” all year. But this year, the results were dismal. Those results apparently forced Yurcich into calling more passes than he’d typically prefer to call, but even then it seems insufficient, especially late in the year when teams have figured out what exactly they are.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that Penn State should be able to run the ball like Michigan did against Ohio State on Saturday. Like James Franklin, I’d like to win that way. But I’m not wedded to it. If Penn State could have won on Saturday by throwing the ball 70 percent of the time, I would’ve gladly taken that win. More broadly, if Penn State can win 10 games per year by throwing the ball 70 percent of the time, that’s fine with me too.

What say you? Is the manner the offense runs important to you? Who do you want to be?