Penn State absolutely destroyed Idaho by a score of 79-7 this past Saturday in their 2019 season debut. Firing on all cylinders, the Nittany Lions exploited their massive talent gap against the Vandals by outplaying them in all three phases of the game. While exciting to score the most points in program history since 1991 – what can we really take out of this game? The truth is, not a whole lot. Idaho is far worse than the worst Big Ten team could ever be – and with the way James Franklin has been recruiting, there was just no way that Idaho was going to be able to match PSU’s physicality.
On the bright side though, this was an awesome chance for a young offense to gain some physical and mental reps in a real live game against a real opponent in front of one of the more massive crowds found anywhere in college football. Sean Clifford’s debut was impressive, completing 14 of 23 passes for 280 yards and 2 scores with 0 interceptions. The offensive line, boasting two new starters, were able to begin to gel and communicate, all while keeping the pocket completely clean. Young pass catchers old and new played good football; the only drop came from a running back – a huge improvement from last season. A huge plus is that in a blowout like this game, so many of the backups got to play and get real reps in game time. This helps to create tremendous depth, which can be especially helpful to Penn State’s young offense.
One of the most exciting things fans got to see this week was the gauntlet of highly touted running backs Penn State has. The Nittany Lions rushed for 331 yards on Saturday, and quite frankly, would have been more if they didn’t start on the opponent’s side of the field every possession. All off season, there has been tremendous hype around the four running backs that will see time this season. Let’s dive into each one a little bit:
- #21 Noah Cain: An IMG Academy prospect, the once 4-star running back was recruited by every big school you can think of. But true freshman Noah, a kid who has cited Saquon Barkley as inspiration, and mentioned 3 and out about a dozen times in every interview he has participated in, wanted to go where he could find the most success. Penn State’s history with RBs, especially recently, made the decision easy for Noah Cain. Noah is the bruiser type and will be the guy who always finds a way to get 4-5 yards every time he gets the ball. On Saturday he rushed for 44 yards on 9 carries with 2 touchdowns.
- #28 Devyn Ford: A true freshman out of Stafford, Virginia, Ford became the third top 5 RB prospect to commit to Penn State in 3 years (Sanders, Slade, Ford). He is an all-purpose running back who basically had offers to go to any school he wanted. This guy is the kind of running back that PSU fans are used to having in recent years: he can combine speed, power, and elusiveness to make a man miss or find the gap. On Saturday he had the most exciting TD run that went for 81 yards. His final stat line on the day was 107 yards on 6 carries with a touchdown. He also caught 3 passes for an additional 6 yards.
- #4 Journey Brown: The redshirt sophomore out of Meadville, PA was the lowest touted recruit out of the four PSU running backs but has the chance to be the most exciting. If you haven’t heard already, in High School, Journey traveled 720 yards and put up 10 TDs… in ONE GAME. Yea… this kid shattered PA state records and got on everyone’s radar. Journey Brown is the fastest kid in the RB room and showed flashes of that this Saturday. Brown put up 38 yards on 5 carries, two of them being touchdowns. He also caught 2 passes for an additional 31 yards.
- #3 Ricky Slade: The true sophomore out of Woodbridge, Virginia was listed as the starter for the 2019 Nittany Lions and was no surprise to anyone. Slade was a 5-star recruit, and was the #1 recruit in 2018 for all RBs and for the entire state of Virginia. Last season he backed up Miles Sanders and put up an impressive 257 yards on 45 carries with 6 TDs. His 2019 season debut wasn’t as flashy, only boasting 9 yards on 5 carries with a TD. However, he did catch a pass that went for 26 yards. Regardless of Saturday’s numbers – this kid can play and is going to have a hell of a season.
Like I said earlier, it is hard to take a ton away from these stats and performances in a game where the opponent was not up to Big Ten standards. However, the one big thing to recognize is that Penn State has an unbelievable amount of talent at the running back position. Incredible right? Well, this can be a gift and a curse, if one of these RBs turns out to be an elite level talent like Saquon Barkley did in 2015 – the rest of these guys are going to lose playing time which could mean losing them to the transfer portal.
With that in mind here is what to watch for:
- Over the next couple games, we are going to find out a lot more about these running backs. Will it really be a platoon between Slade and Brown with a little bit of the true freshman sprinkled in toward the end of games or can it be a 4-man rotation – keeping everyone’s legs fresh and creating a confusing nightmare for defenses? Or… will one of these guys turn out to be the next great RB and steal time from the rest?
- How will Franklin and Rahne use Noah Cain? It has been a while since PSU has had a true, one-cut, power back like Cain. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him more than Ford this season only because of his situational expertise.
- Can Journey Brown unseat Ricky Slade as RB1 this season? This is something that a lot of fans and media are speculating could be a move later on in the season. Brown has sat for two years behind Barkley, Sanders, and Slade and is poised for a huge breakout season. If Saturday told us anything, he is going to be extremely hard to get to the ground and when he does get past that first level … well, goodbye.
Now that we know a little bit about all the running backs and what to look out for, here are my early season predictions: (disclaimer: I know literally nothing)
- Journey Brown will have the most rushing yards and touchdowns at the end of the season. I’m not sure that he will ever become the starter, but he is going to earn playing time. This former 3-star recruit has a chip on his shoulder and I fully expect him to make the most of his time on the field this season. Fans are going to love this kid by the 3rd or 4th week of the season and with a name like Journey – I can see him becoming a household name among Big Ten fans.
- One of Noah Cain or Ricky Slade will transfer at the end of this season. I hope I am wrong but I feel that if they do not get the playing time that their talent probably warrants, they may leave to go to another school where they can showcase their skills more regularly. Slade was a former 5-star and Cain has brought up the NFL quite a bit before even seeing the field; playing time and stats are going to be very important for these two.
- Devyn Ford is the best running back of the four. When this will show its head, I am not sure. But I truly believe that Ford is going to be a menace in the Big Ten for many years with first round draft pick potential. If any of these guys has the chance to steal reps from the others, its Devyn Ford.
It is going to be an extremely fun season watching these dudes compete at a really high level, and I cannot wait to see what happens with all four of Penn State’s running backs. We just need a few more games against more comparable opponents to find out the answers.
PS: have to give a little love to redshirt junior Nick Eury. Played his heart out at the end of this game and rushed for one of the coolest, hardest TDs I’ve seen in a while. YouTube it when you get the chance.