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B1G 2015 // Will James Franklin lean on the running game in 2015?

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Having the quarterback drop back 38 times per game didn't work so well last year.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In case you didn't read the Cocktail Party or watch a lot of Penn State football last season, 2014 was ugly for the offense. With a trio of capable tailbacks, a rising star quarterback, and a stable of athletic wide receivers, the Nittany Lion attack was supposed to flourish under new head coach James Franklin. That didn't happen last year.

Penn State scored a measly 20.6 points per game, and that figure drops into the teens when you take out blowout wins over UMass and Temple. Poor line play caused the running game to stall for a good two-thirds of the season, and inconsistent quarterback play didn't help matters. Opponents weren't afraid to pressure Christian Hackenberg, who didn't make opponents pay often enough. He finished his sophomore campaign with just 12 touchdowns to go with 15 interceptions.

Coming over from Vanderbilt, Franklin was a coach who favored the run game, but in his first game with Penn State he called for 47 passes from Hackenberg, even as the Lions held the lead for a great majority of the playing time. That kind of game plan looked fine when Penn State was winning close games against Central Florida and Rutgers, but then it looked pretty dumb when the Lions were mauled by Northwestern and Michigan.

To demonstrate Franklin's change in game plan from his old job to his new one, here's a table I made from data on Sports-Reference.com.

Year School Record Quarterback Pass attempts per game Yards per pass Rush attempts per game Yards per rush
2011 Vanderbilt 6-7 Jordan Rodgers 26.6 6.6 38.2 4.3
2012 Vanderbilt 9-4 Jordan Rodgers 26.9 7.9 40.3 4.1
2013 Vanderbilt 9-4 Austyn Carta-Samuels 28.9 7.9 38.8 3.6
2014 Penn State 7-6 Christian Hackenberg 38.2 6.1 34.7 2.9

Vanderbilt only used the quarterback to rush a significant amount during Jordan Rodgers' 2011 season. I guess it's also worth nothing that the team used a lot of Zac Stacy in 2011 and 2012 before he was taken the in fifth round of the 2013 draft.

Still, look at those numbers. Franklin was having a lot more success through both the air and the ground in the loaded SEC than in the Big Ten. Sure, Penn State faced some good defenses in 2014, but Franklin's offense barely mustered a touchdown against Indiana and scored just 14 points at Illinois.

So why did Franklin turn Penn State into such a passing-oriented team after so much success on the ground at Vanderbilt? Did he feel pressure to utilize the highly-touted Hackenberg, or was he just playing the hand he was dealt? Either way, we saw Franklin's tendencies differ drastically from what he did at Vandy. Does that continue after the offense was such a flop in 2014? Maybe we can tell by looking at a game-by-game breakdown (I manually omitted throws by non-quarterbacks and rushes by quarterbacks).

Opponent Result Pass attempts Passing yards Yards per pass Rush attempts Rushing yards Yards per rush
Central Florida W 26-24 47 454 9.7 23 55 2.4
Akron W 21-3 36 319 8.9 29 105 3.6
at Rutgers W 13-10 44 309 7.0 21 46 2.2
UMass W 48-7 32 236 7.4 40 220 5.5
Northwestern L 6-29 45 216 4.8 14 45 3.2
at Michigan L 13-18 32 160 5.0 25 88 3.5
Ohio State L 24-31 (2OT) 49 224 4.6 23 43 1.9
Maryland L 19-20 42 177 4.2 30 64 2.1
at Indiana W 13-7 29 168 5.8 29 184 6.3
Temple W 30-13 26 112 4.3 42 244 5.8
at Illinois L 14-16 16 93 5.8 44 188 4.3
Michigan State L 10-34 45 195 4.3 17 55 3.2
Boston College W 31-30 (OT) 50 371 7.4 21 82 3.9

During that three-game stretch against Indiana, Temple, and Illinois, Franklin showed a lot more faith in the running game, and for the most part it paid off. We still don't know if that faith was because of improvement in the offensive line or just a streak of soft defenses, but it's a good sign nevertheless.

Meanwhile, Hackenberg continued to struggle in all three games, which led to less-than-ideal point outputs in Bloomington and Champaign. The young signal-caller bounced back with a strong showing the Pinstripe Bowl win against Boston College, but we don't know if that game is a sign of things to come or just an outlier in an otherwise disappointing campaign.

Much of the late-season rushing success was due to the emergence of Akeel Lynch. The talented back started the season as a backup to Zach Zwinak and Bill Belton, but he's the clear starter in 2015. Not only have Zwinak and Belton graduated, but Lynch's pair of 100-yard performances against Temple and Illinois show that he can carry the load based on merit as well.

There's still a lot we have to learn about Franklin and the future Penn State offense, but if last year taught us anything, it's that the head coach shouldn't feel obligated to hand Hackenberg the ball over and over. A balanced attack was what led to Franklin's success at Vanderbilt, and it gave the Penn State offense some life late in 2014. That's why we ought to see a bigger focus on the running game this fall.