Tricky Penn St. running game awaits Gophers

Aaron Blake

Through four games this season, Penn State’s football team has started a pair of interesting players at tailback and begun one of its games without a tailback in the starting lineup at all.

Sophomore quarterback Michael Robinson started the Lions’ first two games at the position, which was abandoned to start versus Nebraska before true freshman Austin Scott ran for 100 yards and three touchdowns versus Kent State last week.

Scott is not listed in the Penn State media guide.

So as Minnesota (4-0) travels to Beaver Stadium to battle the Lions on Saturday, about the only sure thing in Penn State’s (2-2) rushing backfield has been Sean McHugh. The fullback gained only 46 yards lining up in front of Larry Johnson, the nation’s leading rusher last season.

“We’ve got some really talented young backs,” Lions coach Joe Paterno said. “But we’re talking true freshmen. Eventually, we’re going to be OK there. Whether any of them are going to be as good as Larry Johnson is debatable. You don’t have that many 2,000-yard, first-season runners around. But I think we’re making progress.”

While the Gophers rotate tailbacks because of the surplus of ability at the position, the Lions will do the same thing searching for what suffices in that specific game.

Senior Ricky Upton is the only upperclassman tailback on the roster to carry the ball for Penn State this season. The others are true freshman Tony Hunt and redshirt freshman BranDon Snow – who have combined for nine carries.

Life after Johnson has proved uncertain, if nothing else. The emergence of Scott against the Flashes provides a degree of hope for a young team trying to regain the national prominence they have enjoyed throughout Paterno’s 53 seasons on the coaching staff.

After Paterno signed Scott in February, he said his group of recruits included a player he called one of the best running backs he’d ever seen – and he’s seen Johnson, 1995 NFL first-overall selection Ki-Jana Carter and Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti just on his sideline.

Due to NCAA rules, Paterno couldn’t say what the extraordinary talent’s name was at the time. But it soon became clear Scott was the recipient of Paterno’s heaping praise.

In his senior season at Parkland High School in Pennsylvania, Scott ran for 3,853 yards, 53 scores and 318 total points – all Pennsylvania state records. The yards he accumulated rank fourth all-time nationally for a single season.

So don’t look for Minnesota coach Glen Mason to be surprised by Scott’s talent. Besides, Mason knows a little about what true freshmen can do in their first several collegiate games.

“If I didn’t know he was a freshman, I wouldn’t know he was a freshman,” Mason said of Penn State’s young backfield. “If you see (Minnesota true freshman Laurence) Maroney play out there, he doesn’t look like a freshman.”

Maroney is second on the Gophers in rushing despite playing behind a trio of talented and proven tailbacks. He led the team with 132 yards and a touchdown versus Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday.

But Maroney’s carries might disappear in favor of the more-experienced backs now that Big Ten season is beginning.

Scott, however, will be first in line for the Lions and depended upon for a feasible running attack.

If Scott can’t emulate the solid performance against Kent State, the Lions have little choice but to fall back on their passing game. The problem is junior quarterback Zach Mills’ passes haven’t been handled to Paterno’s liking thus far this season.

“Zach Mills is a good quarterback,” Paterno said. “But we have not caught the ball well. We have not been able to put some drives together because we’ve dropped the ball.”

Despite never favoring a two-quarterback offense in the past, dropped balls and the inexperience at the tailback position have caused Paterno to insert Robinson at quarterback as a rushing threat. Robinson is second on the team in yards on the ground, including 84 in a season-opening 23-10 win over Temple when he started at tailback.

Penn State ranks a distant last in the Big Ten in passer efficiency and second to last in yards gained through the air. And Minnesota’s pass defense ranks second only to Penn State’s.

Accordingly, what can be certain on Saturday are two teams trading possessions grinding the ball on the ground.

But what else could be expected from the Big Ten?

“Most of the teams in the Big Ten, with maybe the exception of Purdue, are run-heavy teams,” defensive tackle Darrel Reid said. “Penn State’s no different. They’ll run first and pass second. That’s what we’re going to be prepared for.”

So it’s no surprise that, despite the inexperienced backs the Lions will have carrying the ball, Reid barely blinks when asked about job one.

“This week? Stop the run,” Reid said.