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Long before Penn State opened its 2023 football season, coach James Franklin said he expected opponents to focus on stopping the run because of quarterback Drew Allar’s inexperience.
Franklin has proved to be right.
For the most part, West Virginia, Delaware and Illinois have contained Nick Singleton and Kaytron Allen during the seventh-ranked Nittany Lions’ 3-0 start.
Penn State has had just two rushes of at least 20 yards, a 21-yard run by backup quarterback Beau Pribula against Illinois and a 20-yard burst by third-team running back Trey Potts against Delaware.
That’s a stark contrast to last season when the Lions had 19 runs of at least 20 yards against Purdue, Ohio and Auburn in the first three games. Singleton, the former Gov. Mifflin star, had five rushes of at least 40 yards by himself.
“Obviously we gotta be more explosive,” Franklin said Tuesday during his weekly press conference.
Singleton and Allen combined to rush for 1,868 yards last season as freshmen. The two have just 362 yards going into Saturday’s White Out Game against No. 24 Iowa (3-0) at 7:30 at Beaver Stadium (TV-CBS).
“Most importantly, we have to consistently show people that we can throw the ball over their heads,” Franklin said. “Although Drew has shown what he’s able to do and what he’s capable of, I still think people (opponents) are going to say to themselves, ‘We can’t allow Kaytron and Nick to beat us.’ ”
Allar, a former five-star prospect, has played well in his first three starts, completing 67% of his passes for 737 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. Last week in a 30-13 victory at Illinois, he had just one completion longer than 19 yards, a 33-yard strike to Liam Clifford that set up a field goal.
For the season, the Lions have seven completions of at least 20 yards compared to 49 in 13 games last season.
Singleton wound up as the leading receiver at Illinois with three catches for 49 yards out of the backfield. KeAndre Lambert-Smith had three receptions for 23 yards for Penn State, which played without Harrison Wallace III, its second-leading receiver.
“Obviously it can be very frustrating when we’re not getting the explosive plays that we want,” Allar said. “We were very close a lot of times. It’s just maybe better ball placement by me or just better timing in general. We can make those shorter plays that might have gone for six.”
Franklin said he expects Iowa to concentrate on stopping the run. The Hawkeyes have held Utah State, Iowa State and Western Michigan to 12.3 points and 106.7 rushing yards per game.
“In the Big Ten we play good defense around here,” Franklin said. “There are gonna be games when we gotta grind it out. You guys know Iowa. This is probably gonna be another one of those games when we have to grind it out. It’s going to be a four-quarter game.”
Against Illinois, Allen rushed 13 times for 54 yards and a touchdown and Singleton had 11 carries for 37 yards and a score. Penn State finished with 162 rushing yards, including 47 by Pribula in the fourth quarter after the outcome had been decided.
“The big thing is you gotta spread the field out and try to make them (opponents) cover the pass,” tight end Theo Johnson said. “And then come back and try to run the ball as well and just go back and forth with that.
“It really just starts up front by imposing your will and letting them know you can crowd the box and do that all you want, but we can still run the ball at will.”
Allen and Singleton expressed patience about the lack of explosive runs immediately after the win over Illinois, but others might not feel the same way.
“There are going to be weeks when we’re super explosive based on the opportunities that the defense gives us and the plays we make,” Franklin said. “And there are going to be other weeks when we have to grind it out and do it in a more old-fashioned sense.
“Do our coaches want more? Do our players want more? Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. But most importantly we are finding ways to win.”
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