Should Noah Cain be RB1?

In the past few games, Noah Cain has proven himself to be a reliable and consistent weapon on offense. Penn State has famously been using a running back by committee philosophy for the first half of the season, and so far, it’s worked out fairly well. However, the backs are starting to separate themselves into tiers, and a tipping point is coming up.

Here’s the stats for the committee (including Sean Clifford, who, through 6 games, is Penn State’s leading rusher with 59 attempts.

Performance from Penn State’s top-5 rushers so far this year, through 6 games.

As you can see, Noah Cain is starting to set himself apart in terms of his attempts and his TDs. Now, attempts are James Franklin’s decision, so he hasn’t influenced that stat line (but he has made the most of it by being consistent).

TDs are another one where he is obviously putting the ball in the endzone, but he is also being given the opportunity more than other backs. He hasn’t been nearly as explosive as Journey Brown or Devyn Ford. His TD runs have been for 3, 9, 2, 13, 2, and 5 yards. So, I’d give more credit to our offensive line for carving a hole, rather than him making some explosive play to punch it in himself.

In terms of Yards per Attempt, as mentioned, Brown and Ford are the leaders here. Each of them are hovering around 7 yards per attempt. Brown has also been a threat in the pass game, albeit on a minuscule 7 receptions. That being said, Cain’s YPA are nothing to (I can never remember how this saying goes) sniff? — at. He’s averaging 5.4 yards per attempt, or in other words, half a first down per attempt. I’ll take that any day, considering only 16 teams in D-I average more than that. As in whole teams, that get to switch out their backs and put in fresh ones.

So now that we have an idea of where Noah Cain stands in the hierarchy of RBs (in my opinion – pretty even with the top 3), the question is what to do about the snap count for each guy.

My dad, and noted Staturdays commenter, brought up an interesting point about the transfer portal, and if Franklin is scared of its implications in the first full season of use. Given that Penn State lost a lot of prolific talent to other programs in the offseason (mainly the drop-plagued wide receivers and defensive backs), that fear might still be lingering in his mind.

His concern was that Franklin may be spreading the ball out more than the data suggests in order to keep all four guys content with their decision to attend The Pennsylvania State University. This could be the case, but there are two edges to that sword.

  1. Play all four backs evenly, and they all get playing time and are happy, but you may not get the optimal production in the run game.
  2. Play all four backs evenly, and the true “star” RB that deserves more snaps than he’s being given enters the transfer portal anyway, looking for a program that will give him his fair share of the workload (Noah Cain currently carries 24% of it at Penn State. Not that these two players are comparable yet, but for reference Jonathon Taylor receives 47% of the workload in terms of attempts.)

Either way, it looks like the committee is a risky option once you have found your guy. Now, in the first half of the season, Franklin didn’t have much of a choice. These guys are young and Franklin needs to play them to figure out what they’ve got in a real game (Brown is a junior, Slade is a sophomore, and Ford and Cain are Freshmen).

Unfortunately for us (and Franklin), Penn State’s data doesn’t really hint at whether a committee or a star RB is best. In the games where we have employed the most committee-style run-game, they have been blowouts against bad defenses. Everybody and their little brother got into the game, and regardless of who was toting the ball, they were carrying it well. So the data is skewed.

Yards per Attempt for the team in games where Penn State RBs shared the ball, vs. when they used a star RB (30% or more of the workload).

When a Penn State rusher got over 30% of the workload (which has only happened in 3 of 6 games), we actually rushed worse than when the ball was spread out, by more than 1 yard per attempt difference. That being said, the games where we rushed by committee were against Idaho, Maryland, and Purdue, all of which we beat up on.

So for now, I am arguing for Franklin to continue what he’s doing and spread the ball out. The past few weeks have given all of us a favorable impression of Noah Cain, and rightly so, but let’s not ignore the impact that having four (or five, shoutout Sean Clifford) versatile running threats can have on the game.

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