Nittany Lions’ top RB has only gained a total of 148 yards on the ground over the past three contests heading into Saturday’s meeting with Wisconsin.
Penn State’s Miles Sanders took his fellow running backs down the hall this week to visit the offensive linemen. There, Sanders said the backs “showed them love” with hopes of getting Penn State’s run game back to its September self.
“All I saw was a lot of smiles on their faces,” Sanders said of the linemen. “I don’t ever want them to think that we’re giving up on them. We just wanted to let them know that we have their backs, that we’re in this together and that we will get the running game back on track this weekend.”
Penn State hosts Wisconsin on Saturday (noon) seeking to refresh a run game whose productivity has fallen sharply of late. Sanders averaged 116.7 yards per game through the season’s first six weeks, which included a 162-yard performance against Michigan State.
Since then, Sanders has run for 148 yards combined in the past three games. While Penn State is 2-1 in that stretch, Sanders said he’s looking to drive the run game back to a position of strength.
Penn State’s rushing issues were magnified against Michigan. The Wolverines leaned heavily on Penn State’s backfield, limiting Sanders to 14 yards on seven carries. They were particularly comfortable defending Sanders and quarterback Trace McSorley, allowing their cornerbacks to square off directly against the Lions’ receivers.
Because Penn State’s passing game has been so inconsistent, the run game had compensated, particularly with McSorley. The quarterback and Sanders were effective in losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, keeping those games close.
Against Michigan, though, neither component worked. As a result, Penn State had just 111 yards of total offense until its 75-yard scoring drive late in the fourth quarter.
“Last week, obviously, that was a big story line in the game, especially their defensive line and linebackers against our offensive line and tight ends,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “We did not play well enough there. We did not put our players in the best position enough.”
Franklin said that some of his linemen are “dinged up and fighting through some things” but acknowledged that the Michigan game wasn’t their best. Afterward, Sanders said a visit to the offensive line was in order.
Sanders and fellow backs Journey Brown, Ricky Slade and Johnathan Thomas recognized the run-game frustration but wanted to dissolve any notion of blame.
“We wanted to say that we still trust them and we still appreciate them,” Sanders said. “I can’t even put into words how much I appreciate them. But we just have to get it going, have to get that confidence back. We have to have that mentality to run the ball like we did in the beginning of the season.”
Franklin has noted for several weeks that McSorley has been forced to shoulder too much of the offensive load, a pressure the run game could help alleviate. Trouble is, McSorley wasn’t healthy enough to run effectively last week, resulting in his first game of negative rushing yards (minus-6) this season.
Whether McSorley or Tommy Stevens plays Saturday could affect how much the quarterbacks run. Either way, Franklin said that re-establishing Sanders is an offensive priority.
“Miles has shown that he can be a big-play back in this conference, that he can carry the load and get you the tough yards as well as the big plays,” Franklin said. “It’s going to be very important that we find a way to establish the run game, again, so there’s not so much on the shoulders of Trace McSorley.”