Junior tailback growing into Nittany Lion leader
UNIVERSITY PARK — As C.J. Thorpe, a defensive lineman from Pittsburgh, picked up a kickoff and started rumbling with it Saturday afternoon, Miles Sanders cheered on his good buddy.
But Thorpe fumbled, denying himself a SportsCenter highlight, and when he got to the sideline, Sanders reminded Thorpe to work on his ball security.
Thorpe shot back, “You got to get ball security, too … I said, ‘yeah, you’re right.”’
Sanders laughed as he told the story. He knows leadership goes both ways.
Unlike some previous days this season, including last week at Michigan, Sanders was the anchor of the Nittany Lions’ running game and made a big difference in their 22-10 victory over Wisconsin on a blustery Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
The junior tailback rushed for 159 yards on 23 carries and surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the season.
He said 1,000 yards is “a goal for any running back,” but he shared the accolades with his offensive line.
“I wanted to get the confidence of the offensive line back,” he said.
Sanders’ impressive repertoire was on full display as he gained yards after contact, broke into the open field and even hurdled a couple Badger tacklers.
“I don’t think I’m going to hurdle no more,” he said. “That second one hurt.”
He also showed his ability and willingness to pass block and made two receptions.
“I feel like I’m pretty balanced,” he said. “I think I’m explosive and physical, all that. My last two years, I struggled with catching the ball, but I worked hard in the offseason on it. I take pride in helping out the passing game.”
The Woodland Hills product displayed patience at the line and says he’s learned to “trust my eyes and try to get downhill.”
Sanders, who now has 1,007 yards on the season, was particularly motivated Saturday since Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor entered the game leading the nation in rushing (he now has 1,548 yards).
Taylor got his 185, including a 71-yard touchdown to open the scoring.
“That (71-yarder) got me going,” Sanders said. “I love competing. He’s a great running back, one of the top running backs in the country. I respect him.”
The two met afterward at midfield and encouraged each other with the message of, “Just keep being you,” Sanders said.
Penn State, meanwhile, improved to 7-3 on the season and kept itself in position for a pretty decent bowl opponent.
Saturday reinforced that wherever the Lions are going, they can’t get there by relying as heavily as they have on Trace McSorley, who was injured again Saturday but returned once again.
“Trace is the toughest player on our team,” Sanders said.
The admiration is mutual.
“Everyone sees his athletic abilities,” McSorley said of Sanders. “The more he gets comfortable, the more he starts making plays where he’s jumping over people. … But what’s cool for me and the rest of our team and our perspective, we’ve been able to see him grow as a leader and get more comfortable in that role of being able to speak up and get guys going on offense and talk to guys on defense.”
An improved running game Saturday also helped keep the Lions’ defense fresh.
“It gave us more control of the game and more of a balanced offense,” Sanders said. “And I give it up for our defense.”
James Franklin called Sanders “a tremendous teammate.”
Even when Sanders was fumbling in key situations this season, he didn’t slump his shoulders.
“You never see bad body language on our sideline,” Franklin said. “I’m proud of that.”
Sanders has worked through his fumbles. He coughed up another Saturday but was fortunate to be ruled down.
“We work on it every day,” he said. “In those situations, we’ve got to get two hands on the ball.”
After his better games this season, Sanders has taken his five starting linemen out to dinner.
He said the program “gives us a stipend,” but when Chaz Wright (who splits duty at left tackle with Will Fries) arrived, he checked his wallet.
“My budget’s not that good,” he said, smiling. “I sacrifice my stipend for them, but then Big Chaz comes, and Trace came, too. When I saw them, I was like, “Oh, man.”’
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.