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Franklin not budging on backfield rotation

Game time

Who: Penn State at Michigan State

When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV: ABC

The latest line: PSU by 6 1⁄2

It seems pretty obvious, to just about everyone: Noah Cain is Penn State’s best running back and needs to get more carries.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any PSU fan or media member who disagrees with that assertion.

But the past two weeks, in situation after situation where Cain perhaps could have helped the struggling offense, he was not on the field.

James Franklin and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne have kept up their four-man tailback rotation, even though it’s become clear the offense looks better with Cain, a true freshman, in the backfield than anyone else.

So, what’s going on here?

Why is there such a disconnect between what the coaches are doing versus what appears to be so obvious to fans and media?

Is there something the coaches are seeing that the rest of us are just missing?

Franklin was asked these questions Tuesday. Time and time again in recent weeks, he’s gone to his default “we have four running backs we like answer,” but this time he at least provided a little more detail when pressed on the Cain issue.

“Yeah, there’s always things that you guys are missing, and that’s no disrespect to you guys,” Franklin said, referring to the media. “But we’re out at practice and in meetings for 16-plus hours a day, and out at practice and watching everything, and you guys get 20 minutes a week to watch practice and just the games.

“There’s 1,000 points that go into decision making.”

That answer alone would indicate there is indeed more to the story of why Cain hasn’t played more. There are things the coaches are seeing that have led them their ultimate decisions, and Franklin just chooses not to share them.

“We have four backs that we really like, and we’ll continue to play those guys,” Franklin continued. “We’re very pleased with Noah. Actually had dinner with Noah (Monday) night. My wife was busting his chops.

“He’s been great. He’s been really good. We’re as pleased with him as you guys are, and we’re as pleased with him as the fans are, as well. But we also have a lot of confidence in those three other guys, as well.”

Here’s the running back comparison so far:

n Noah Cain: 62 carries, 329 yards, six TDs

n Journey Brown: 39 carries, 252 yards (85 on one run), three TDs

n Devyn Ford: 31 carries, 217 yards, two TDs

n Ricky Slade: 31 carries, 107 yards, two TDs

Cain, as you can see, has twice as many carries as all but Brown, and still has 23 more carries than Brown. So, he is getting more touches than everyone else.

The main issue, though, is the timing of those carries.

Cain had a meager five carries (for 19 yards) in Saturday’s 28-21 win over Michigan, and two of those came on the final drive when PSU needed a first down to seal the win. Cain had 7 yards on the two carries before KJ Hamler got 4 yards for the clinching first down.

The five carries came the week after a game in which Cain had 102 yards rushing on 22 carries in a 17-12 win at Iowa. Still, even in that close game, there were long stretches during crucial moments when Cain could have been in and helped salt things away, yet it was someone else’s turn in the tailback rotation.

He finally was used on the last drive and was able to pick up key yards for a clinching first down at Iowa. That drive, and the drive late against Michigan, only strengthen people’s viewpoint that Cain is the best running back, and it doesn’t make much sense to not use him for long periods when he can help stretch leads to insurmountable margins, as opposed to having to come on late to lock up close wins.

The fact that the offense typically goes into lulls when Cain is not on the field gives more ammunition to fans’ opinion that he should be playing more.

Going back a few weeks, Cain had 105 yards on only 12 carries against Purdue. So he had 207 yards in the two games prior to Michigan, then had the measly five carries against the Wolverines.

Again, what is it we’re all missing?

“I get it. I get the question,” Franklin said. “I think there’s a lot of ways that you guys see us with young players, a lot like (linebacker) Micah Parsons, who never started a game last year. Obviously the difference is Micah played starter reps, but we didn’t have four guys at that position.?”We’re 1-0. We found a way to get a win last week against one of the more talented rosters in the country, against a really good football program, and Noah had a big part in that and will continue to have a big part in that. I think you’ll see his role grow as the season goes on, or you’re going to see another back take some steps, as well. We’ll see.”

There’s one other element to this whole discussion that should be mentioned. Last week, when asked what Cain can do to distinguish himself, Franklin began with his usual “we’ve got four running backs that we really like” answer. He then later offered up the following about the tailback competition:

“What also is great about this right now is you’d better not miss class. You’d better do everything you’re supposed to because we’ve got the type of competition right now, if you give us one reason” it perhaps could cost playing time.

Was Franklin hinting at something with that answer, especially the part about missing class? The coach is very smart and chooses his words carefully when addressing everything, and looking back on it, it stands to reason that he wouldn’t bring up things like doing everything right and going to class unless it had some type of relevance.

Franklin was given an opportunity Tuesday to address what it is we’re all missing with Cain, and he could have used that to add any other reasons he has for making his decisions — such as missing class or disciplinary measures or anything, really. The coach provided no such information, so speculation of that sort may not have anything to do with anything.

Maybe we’ll get more information about all of this at some point. But for now, we’ll all have to keep wondering why Cain isn’t able to do more things on the field when he’s clearly earned that right.

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