By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer
If fans of Penn State were boisterous to start the season, they certainly have a legitimate reason to feel good about things entering Week 7.
That’s because the No. 10 Nittany Lions, undefeated at 5-0, have a real chance to pull an upset at No. 5 Michigan (6-0) on Saturday (Noon ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app). The reason for optimism in Happy Valley is simple — Penn State has returned to its roots, pushed via the talents of true freshman running back Nick Singleton.
This might not seem surprising when examining Singleton’s credentials — he was National Gatorade Player of the Year at Governor Mifflin High School in Shillington, Pennsylvania, after all, rushing for more than 2,000 yards with 44 TDs as a senior in 2021.
But the turnaround is remarkable when you consider this: Penn State managed to play the entire season in 2021 without a single 100-yard rusher. That’s a dubious feat that hadn’t been “achieved” in State College since the 1960s. Gone were the recent days of Saquon Barkley striking fear into the hearts of opposing fan bases just by lining up seven-and-a-half yards deep in the backfield. Long gone were the days — 20 years ago, in fact — since Larry Johnson Jr. rushed for 2,000 yards as a senior at PSU.
What’s more? Heading into the 2021 season, Penn State coach James Franklin said he expected the offensive line to be a strength of his team. But when I spoke with him at Big Ten Media Days before the start of this season, he refused to make such a proclamation.
“I’ve come to the Big Ten Media Days every year and talked about this is going to be the year … I’m not doing that this year,” Franklin said. “I’m gonna let the proof be in the pudding. I’ll let you tell me in the middle of the season where we’re at. And whatever you say will be gospel.”
James Franklin on RB Nick Singleton
RJ Young spoke with Penn State’s James Franklin at Big Ten Media Days, and the coach talked about what he expected from running back Nick Singleton.
Well, let me be one of those to say at the midpoint of the season, your offensive line and running game have been good, Coach Franklin. But that’s not an accident.
“It’s our commitment to the running game,” Franklin told me last July. “It’s being able to run on normal downs. It’s being able to run on short-yardage situations, goal-line, four-minute.
“That’s a commitment in the offseason, that’s development of the offensive line and then that’s running backs having a mentality that wants the scheme or the players up front get you to the free linebacker or get you to the free safety. Now you got to do your job, you gotta make that one guy miss.”
Since Singleton started rushing behind that O-line, he has answered the call to make defenders miss, winning those one-on-one situations. So have his cohorts in that running back room, including Kaytron Allen and Keyvone Lee. The Nittany Lions have produced three 100-yard rushers in their first five games, and Singleton has accounted for two himself, including a 179-yard outing on just 10 carries against Ohio.
He followed up that performance with 124 yards on, again, just 10 carries, en route to a 42-10 victory at Auburn, making the Nittany Lions the first Big Ten program to win at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Nicholas Singleton dashes 53 yards at Auburn
Penn State took a 21-6 lead at Auburn in their meeting this season, thanks to a 53-yard run from Singleton.
It’s clear to me that if the Nittany Lions are going to continue their undefeated start to the season, Singleton is going to be at the center of it, just as Michigan running back Blake Corum has been for the Wolverines from the jump.
With 124 yards on 25 carries against Indiana last week, Corum became the first Michigan tailback to rush for at least 120 yards in each of UM’s first three league games in the last quarter-century. With Corum in the backfield, Jim Harbaugh has been afforded the luxury of carrying the QB derby between Cade McNamara — last year’s starter and captain — and former five-star recruit JJ McCarthy into the regular season.
Halfway through the season, Corum is on pace to finish the regular season with nearly 1,500 rushing yards more than six yards per carry, as the Wolverines attempt to defend their first Big Ten title in nearly two decades.
What’s more? The 735 rush yards he’s picked up this year as the feature back aren’t empty. He has shown himself capable of being both the ignition for the offense to start firing and its most capable closer when the game needs to be put away.
So far, he has been at his best at home, rushing for 478 yards and nine TDs at Michigan Stadium. With the nation’s fifth-best rush defense traveling to the Big House this Saturday, he’ll have to be again.
Where does Blake Corum among Michigan RBs?
RJ Young is joined by former Iowa running back Shonn Greene and former Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards in a discussion about Blake Corum.
Manny Diaz’s defense has allowed an average of just 79.6 rushing yards per game, and you can bet he’ll try to force McCarthy to beat his defense by throwing the ball as often as possible, while also continuing their trend of taking the ball away from opposing offenses.
The Nittany Lions have notched 11 takeaways over their last three games. Perhaps this game will come down to the running backs once again, and the one who has the better showing — Singleton or Corum — will also be on the winning team.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The Number One College Football Show.Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube.
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