The Buckeyes will be hitting the road again this weekend and heading to Happy Valley, for what is likely to be a tough matchup in a traditionally hostile environment. Ohio State is set to face Penn State, the 13th-ranked team in the country. While the Nittany Lions will not technically be OSU’s highest-ranked opponent to date, they will be the most deserving of their top-tier status (sorry Notre Dame fans, but we go through this every year).
PSU is 6-1 on the season, and seems to have found its pre-pandemic groove once again. After compiling an 11-11 record between 2020 and 2021, James Franklin has his guys back in the national spotlight and ready to compete for Big Ten relevancy.
The biggest issue plaguing Penn State in recent seasons was a subpar offense. Said offense was weighed down even further by poor offensive line play, leaving the Nittany Lion defense to try and win games essentially on their own. And it is a shame, because those units had a ton of talent. But getting back to the offense: PSU may have finally solved the puzzle up front.
The team is averaging 178.4 rushing yards per game, on 5.0 yards per carry, and they have generally protected quarterback Sean Clifford when he drops back to pass. But perhaps it is all coincidental. Perhaps Clifford has finally developed better pocket presence after nearly a decade in college, and what if improvements in the run game are not O-line driven, but a result of significant talent upgrades in the backfield?
Ignoring the Clifford factor briefly, I believe Penn State’s offensive line has improved. But not so much so that the big men up front should suddenly be viewed as road graders. I think the unit has gone from below-average to average, and benefitted from a better collection of backs behind them. But still, the team’s second-leading rusher, Kaytron Allen, is only averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Keyvone Lee, the team’s leading rusher last season, sits at 3.8 YPC. And Clifford, while being sacked less, is not making chunk plays with his legs. Those players have been rather pedestrian as runners.
So where is the upgrade? It comes in the form of one true freshman named Nick Singleton. The top RB from the 2021 recruiting class – who grew up just a few hours from the PSU campus – has hit the ground running (literally and figuratively), and appears to be the answer these Nittany Lions have been looking for since Saquon Barkley toted the rock for them. Singleton, while somewhat inconsistent, is one of the most explosive backs in the country, and this week’s Offensive Player to Watch.
Singleton was an absolute star in high school, finishing as the No. 1 RB in his class according to 247Sports. One of their analysts compared him to the Cleveland Browns’ Nick Chubb, and I can’t honestly say they were far off. At 6-foot, 215 pounds, not only did Singleton run over players on the football field, but he also ran sprints and threw the shotput for his school’s track team. I myself threw shotput in high school, and let me tell you: Field event athletes do not typically excel at anything to do with running. That takes a special type of athlete. Singleton was named Gatorade National Player of the Year, finishing with over 2,000 yards and 44 touchdowns as a senior.
Once on campus in Happy Valley, the true freshman was expected to compete for a role right away. Because not only did Penn State struggle to run the ball in 2021, but they had limited depth returning. Noah Cain moved on to LSU, and (Keyvon) Lee had done little to cement himself as an unquestioned alpha in the RB room. After a rough opener for all PSU ball carriers, in which they combined for 98 yards on 32 carries, Singleton quickly began to establish himself at “the man” in Week 2.
Against an inferior Ohio Bobcat team, Singleton did what he was supposed to do against a weaker opponent. He ran over, around, and past them. On just 10 carries, the fab frosh gained 179 yards and scored two TDs. He also returned two kicks for 40 yards, netting him a total of 219. His first career score was a 70-yard run, during which he blew by nearly all of the Bobcat defenders, displaying that impressive track speed. He also added a 44-yard score in the second half, to go with a number of other chunk plays.
Singleton took a huge step back and was not nearly as efficient against Auburn in Week 3, finishing with only 124 yards on the same number of carries (10). For shame! 20 carries for 303 yards and 2 TD, over a two-game span, is real amateur hour if you ask me. But in all seriousness, Singleton had established himself as a Freshman All-American candidate after just a few weeks.
He then began a bit of an actual drop-off, with the Nittany Lions encountering stiffer competition and Allen shouldering more of the load. Singleton rushed for 42 yards against Central Michigan, while Allen led the team with 111 and a TD. In three games since, the two freshmen have put near-identical stats against Northwestern, TTUN, and Minnesota – to the point where you would think I am making them up.
During that three-game stretch, Allen carried the ball 42 times for 179 yards, at a clip of 4.3 YPC. Singleton toted the rock 40 times for 185 yards, giving him a slight edge in efficiency at 4.6 YPC. The latter also scored three TDs to Allen’s one during that timeframe, but the rest of their numbers are strangely similar. I expect both backs to see heavy usage against the Buckeyes, but the former Gatorade POTY strikes me as a slightly bigger threat.
nick singleton and kaytron allen have 11 rushing touchdowns this year, which is as many as penn state had as a team last year— Bill DiFilippo (@billdifilippo) October 23, 2022
That is because Singleton is able to do just about everything with the ball in his hands. He is quick and decisive with cuts, strong enough to break tackles, and more than fast enough to pull away from defenders in the open field. His one glaring weakness is actually getting said ball into his hands, at least when it is thrown directly at him. The young thoroughbred has only five catches on the season, and his lack of receiving volume is nothing new. Going back to his Gatorade POTY season, he only registered four catches in 2021! But Singleton can only do what he is asked to do, and if that is to function as a two-down back, then he has at least proven to be a productive one.
Ohio State will have their hands full with this star freshman on Saturday. In addition to Singleton’s excellence, the Buckeyes will have to contend with a veteran in Clifford, as well as a number of skilled pass catchers. This Penn State offense is not the same dreadful (at times) unit we saw in 2020-21. They are a legitimate Big Ten contender, and a threat to the good guys. If Jim Knowles and his OSU defense can contain Singleton, and force the rest of the Nittany Lions to try and beat them, then I think they will have chosen the right gameplan. But it won’t be easy. Here’s hoping they can replicate the defensive performance they put forth against Wisconsin and the Badgers’ strong running attack. Go Bucks!