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Young Lions have lots of weapons

Commentary

IOWA CITY, Iowa. — Enough of this four-man tailback rotation already. Give the dang ball to Noah Cain and let him do his thing.

Penn State has a lot of weapons at a lot of positions all over the field, and that was on display in Saturday night’s 17-12 win over Iowa.

No one was more impressive than Cain, who carried 22 times for 102 yards. The other three tailbacks — Journey Brown, Ricky Slade and Devyn Ford — combined for 41 yards on 12 carries.

The offense just looks different with Cain in the game. The true freshman from Louisiana runs with a full head of steam and barrels over people for sizable gains on just about every carry, while the other backs seem to just dance around for minimal gains.

Still, Penn State’s offensive coaches are so stubborn that it makes you wonder what in the world they’re thinking.

It was obvious to everyone that Cain was having a big night against the Hawkeyes, yet for whatever reason, he went long stretches on the sideline while the coaches continued their fruitless rotation.

Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne can do that sort of thing in non-conference games or against weak Big Ten opponents. But Penn State is now in the middle of a grueling schedule against good teams, and the Lions are asking for trouble if they’re going to keep up with this ridiculous tailback rotation.

What made Saturday’s game notable for Penn State was pinpointing all of the key players who contributed in a big way. Consider:

n Quarterback Sean Clifford clearly didn’t have a great game throwing the ball (12-of-24) for 117 yards, but he continues to impress when he takes off and runs. It’s been said countless times that an RPO offense is most effective when the quarterback is a legit running threat as well as a good passer, and Clifford’s 52 yards rushing were a big part of why Penn State was able to move the ball and ultimately win.

n The defense is obviously tremendous. And while guys like linebacker Micah Parsons and end Yetur Gross-Matos will get a lot of headlines, tackle Robert Windsor was fantastic Saturday. He had 1.5 sacks, 2.5 tackles for loss and two hurries, one of which led directly to an interception, which led to a big PSU touchdown.

n Punter Blake Gillikin had a sensational night. In a game like this, where defenses have the upper hand, field position is vital. Every yard. Gillikin had a 62-yard punt that pinned Iowa at its 8 midway through the third quarter, changing field position. He later pinned the Hawkeyes at their 4, which preceded the Windsor hurry and Jaquan Brisker interception.

n The offensive line is always a lightning rod for Penn State, but the unit did a nice job Saturday. The Lions finished with 177 yards rushing at Kinnick Stadium, and when you do that, you’re always going to have a chance to win in the tough environment.

n KJ Hamler caught seven passes for 61 yards, and while it wasn’t a great game for him, he did finish off one catch with an impressive run for a touchdown.

Penn State has a lot of good players, a result of several years of strong recruiting. What separated the Lions and Hawkeyes in this game was that PSU could rely on several guys for big plays on both sides of the ball, while Iowa simply did not have that luxury.

Penn State survived the first test of its grueling midseason schedule with an ugly victory, and now Michigan comes to Beaver Stadium next week. The Wolverines don’t have a great offense but are — or at least should be — strong on defense, so that game could mirror what we saw Saturday night.

The most important thing we saw Saturday is that Penn State can go on the road and win in a hostile environment.

The team needed that.

James Franklin needed that, ending his dubious distinction of being winless against top 25 teams on the road.

This is not a great Penn State team. Not yet. There are still too many questions on offense.

But the Lions took a big step forward, and they surely gained a lot of confidence.

For such a young team that has a whole bunch of good players, confidence is a powerful thing.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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