DSC_6078.jpg

AUBURN, Ala. — Penn State set up for first-and-10 just short of the navy blue and orange Auburn logo at midfield Saturday evening, boasting a 31-12 lead over the Tigers with a little more than 12 minutes left to play in the fourth quarter.

Every person in Jordan-Hare Stadium, whether wearing white and standing in excitement or wearing orange and moving toward the exits, knew Penn State would run the ball — both in an attempt to burn game clock and because the Nittany Lions had already run all over the Tigers.

Then, Nick Singleton scampered through a hole wide enough for a semitruck on the right side of the Penn State offensive line, cleared away by Bryce Effner, Brenton Strange and Co. He showed off the same speed he flashed against Ohio and flew down the sideline for a 54-yard touchdown, his second score of the game and fourth in two weeks.

“It makes it a lot easier for us,” redshirt-freshman left guard Landon Tengwall said on the field after Penn State’s 41-12 win. “It's fun to watch those guys run down the sideline for 60-70-yard touchdowns. It's the best feeling in the world for an offensive lineman.”

Singleton amassed 124 yards on just 10 carries Saturday, breaking the century mark for the second straight week. That alone, paired with Singleton’s explosiveness and ability to take it the distance on every play, is a long-awaited development for Penn State.

What’s even more important, though, is that pesky aspect of being able to run the ball when everyone knows you’re lining up to run it. Penn State hasn’t often had success in obvious run situations for years.

In 2021, the Nittany Lions turned just 47.62% of their red zone trips into touchdowns and had just six rushing touchdowns from running backs (11 total, including runs from Sean Clifford, Jahan Dotson and Tyler Warren).

Singleton and Kaytron Allen have already matched that mark with six total touchdowns through three games in 2022, and Penn State is converting red zone trips into touchdowns at a much better 83.33% rate.

The quartet of Singleton, Allen, Keyvone Lee and Devyn Ford carried the load overall against Auburn, gaining 245 rushing yards and 6.3 yards per carry. Singleton had the long run late, while Allen punched in two scores of his own, both of which came in pretty obvious run sets.

“Those chunk plays — six, seven, eight yards — those are the plays that really wear out the defense. Those are really the important plays,” Tengwall said. “Those long runs, they happen every once in a while, but those long runs don't happen without those six-, seven-, eight-yard run plays.”

Penn State scored all five of its touchdowns on the ground, three of which came from a running back within six yards of the goal line. Singleton had one such run, and Allen had two — his first including a good deal of patience and an impressive jump cut to find the end zone.

“I think Kaytron has really good vision, and he takes a four-yard run to a 12- or 16-yard run on a consistent basis,” James Franklin said Saturday, highlighting the patience and vision that puts Allen well beyond his true-freshman years.

Granted, Auburn’s program is a shaky one at best, with coach Bryan Harsin very clearly on the hot seat and athletic director Allen Green stepping away from the university back in August. The on-field product will — and already has — suffered. But the Tiger defensive front is still one of the stronger groups in the SEC, if not the country.

Penn State had a running back room and an offensive line unit desperately trying to find its footing heading into 2021. Meanwhile, Auburn had a group regarded as one of the best in the country, led by one of the best backs in Tank Bigsby.

On Saturday, though, the Nittany Lions were the ones with a far more impressive rushing performance in every way, shape and form. For the first time in a long time, they were running the ball consistently, especially when everyone already knew what they were trying to do.

“That’s one of my favorite quotes. Move a man from Point A to Point B against his will,” Tengwall said. “Everybody in the stadium knows you’re running, and you can still get four, five, six, seven yards… It’s big time.”

MORE FOOTBALL COVERAGE

If you're interested in submitting a Letter to the Editor, click here.