PSU preview: Lions head to home opener still looking for RB rotation momentum

This is not exactly an ideal situation. But over the past four seasons, Penn State has certainly gotten used to it.

Since Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders left for the NFL, the Nittany Lions have been looking for their next running back. They’ve signed plenty of top-notch rookies, but between injuries, coordinator trades and inconsistent offensive line play, the Lions have spent most of the last 36 games relying on rotation.

That remains the case as they head into Saturday’s home opener against Ohio. Expect Keyvone Lee to get the first set, Nick Singleton on the second and Kaytron Allen on the third.

“From now on, we’re going to rotate these guys by series,” coach James Franklin said after practice Wednesday. “However, it is played with keys really depends on the player and the series and what is called.

“It could be a little different…if any of these guys get really hot, then obviously the rotation could change. But right now it’s one on one on one.

Regardless of how it goes, Penn State would love to gain momentum in the running game against the Bobcats, especially with another tricky on-deck road trip against Auburn.

That’s something that didn’t happen last season, even in September games against Ball State and FCS Villanova. The Lions haven’t seen a player rush for 100 yards in the last 17 games. Lee was the last to do so in November 2020 against Michigan.

Using a rotation means that linemen sometimes have to adapt to different running styles.

“They’ve all hit the hole in different ways, but they’re getting there down the line,” guard Sal Wormley said. “Sometimes I block and look left and see Kaytron carrying someone. Or I look to the right and see Singleton running 50 miles per hour in the field. Or I look and there’s Keyvone laughing at someone. There is always something going on with the back.

The Lions will be looking for a combination that works between the top three running backs and an offensive line in which seven players got multiple drives against Purdue.

Bryce Effner was at right tackle for Caedan Wallace late in the fourth quarter for Penn State’s game-winning drive. Cornell traded Hunter Nourzad with Landon Tengwall at left guard and also briefly spelled Wormley down the right side.

“My biggest takeaway is that I could definitely be more aggressive,” Wormley said. “I could definitely improve my own technical points. There’s a lot of stuff I’m still working on, and there’s a lot of stuff that I did well and could continue to do well. Right now I’m just focusing on keeping my technique in order and doing the little things.

THREE AND OUT

Albin’s experience

There is usually a slight intimidation factor for MAC schools entering Beaver Stadium. But in this case, the Bobcats are coming with someone who has already won at Happy Valley.

Second-year head coach Tim Albin has been with the program for 17 seasons, meaning he was the offensive coordinator for the 2012 team that upset the Lions 24-14 in Game 1 of 2012 – the Bill O’Brien’s first game after taking over from Joe Paterno.

Albin and his assistant Dwayne Dixon are the only remaining coaches from that historic win, when they were on the staff of recently retired Frank Solich.

Ohio erased a 14-3 halftime deficit to stun a Penn State program still reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal and NCAA sanctions that followed less than two months earlier.

From that perspective, the game is ancient history for Albin, and it’s not something he plans to tackle with his current team.

“Yeah, to be honest with you, we don’t talk about it,” Albin said. “It was a special moment, personally. It’s a special moment for me and my family. But for this football team, we are excited about this Saturday and the opportunity that awaits us.

Albin also experienced Beaver Stage at the opposite end of the spectrum.

In 2002, he was a graduate assistant on the Solich staff in Nebraska when the Cornhuskers came to town ranked in the top 10 – and came away with a humble 40-7 loss in front of a then-record crowd of 110,753.

“The thing that sticks out in my head…is the fans,” Albin said. “They were most kind. To be honest with you, I spent five years in Nebraska, four seasons, and the opposing team, victory or defeat, we were treated with the utmost respect. And that’s what stands out the most to me with Beaver Stadium and this program is their fan base and the way they treated us the last time I was there.

“And I think that’s a wonderful thing for college football because you get into certain stages and certain programs and it’s not like that. And that says a lot about college.

Availability Report

Two defensive linemen who started in Penn State’s January bowl game didn’t make the trip to Purdue last week.

Sounds like tackle Coziah Izzard and wing Smith Vilbert — who had an Outback Bowl record three sacks before halftime — are in the doghouse and not battling injury.

Asked about their status this week after a practice where both players were present, Franklin did not go into detail.

“Not sure yet,” Franklin said. “Not ready to make that decision or that public announcement.”

Neither player was expected to start, but their experience couldn’t hurt a position that sees some of the most frequent rotations. If Izzard and Vilbert aren’t available on Saturday, that should mean more opportunities for Dani Dennis-Sutton and Zane Durant.

The Lions have mostly avoided the injury bug since the start of training camp, with a notable absence being tight end Theo Johnson. Penn State had him travel with the team to Purdue, but he didn’t dress and there remains a question mark for Saturday.

“That’s yet to be determined,” Franklin said on his weekly radio show. “He has bumps and bruises which we are working on with the coaches. It’s not our call – it’s the trainers and health professionals. And I don’t usually get into those things.

“So we are hopeful. He’s an amazing young man. Love him, his mother and all the family. And he has a chance to be a great player for us. So we hope to get it back as soon as possible. I hope it will be Saturday.

Prepare your technology

A new season at Beaver Stadium means a reminder for fans on how to actually get into the place.

Fans with mobile tickets will need to download a new app. Search “Penn State Nittany Lions” on the App Store (for iPhone) or Google Play (for Android). Last season’s mobile ticketing app – titled “Penn State Athletics” – will not work. The new app should be labeled “Nittany Lions”.

Gameday traffic routes that were instituted in 2019 remain in effect. One-way traffic around the stadium will begin at 8.30am on Saturday.

Charles P. Patton