STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — If there is anything that sums up the Nittany Lions' wild inconsistencies and near misses the past two weeks, it would be their crowded running back room.
For the first time in forever, Penn State does not yet truly own a No. 1 running back, which coach James Franklin is convinced, at least publicly, is a strength.
There is so much talent and possibility combined in Ricky Slade, Journey Brown and rookies Noah Cain and Devyn Ford.
They showed the biggest flashes in Saturday's near-death experience in a sold-out Beaver Stadium. The 100th and final meeting (for now) with the Pitt Panthers provided more suspense than possibly anticipated.
The Lions needed a last-gasp defensive stand to pull out the 17-10 victory, knocking down the 50th and final Pitt pass of the day in the end zone as time expired.
There is so much to digest and break down during the coming bye week, but one of the biggest queries should be the running game.
This four-man rotation couldn't get the toughest yards when needed. And no one, once again, could possibly have enough work to develop any kind of workday rhythm.
Slade started the first two games of the season. He has just 21 yards on 12 carries so far.
Brown, who started on Saturday, pulled off a stunning 85-yard through the rain and sun, going from one of the field to the other — without scoring.
Journey Brown goes on quite a long, well, journey, for Penn State pic.twitter.com/4MdEuQ7giB— Chris Hummer (@chris_hummer) September 14, 2019
It could have been an early momentum-turner. Even a gate-opener for a young team that seemed so discontented and hungry from the way last weekend's victory began.
But Brown could manage only 24 yards on his other nine carries.
Cain probably looked the most impressive, leading the Lions' only sustained scoring drive of the day. He showed patience, quick feet and good drive, always falling forward. He finished that touchdown drive by knifing up the middle from 13 yards.
And yet even Cain couldn't get enough push for a crucial first down in the fourth quarter. Maybe more importantly, his six carries weren't nearly enough to learn the truth.
So there it was, Penn State fighting itself and the fiery Panthers until the bitter end — despite owning a significant advantage in recruiting prowess and recent on-field success.
The Lions' vaunted pass rush, even deeper than last year, could barely touch Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett throughout. They earned just one sack against Buffalo and two against Pitt — until Shaka Toney finally dropped him with a minute left.
It went like this all day. Unable to run the ball, Pitt simply relied on Pickett to lead two long scoring drives early — completing a stunning 11 passes on one of them.
Meanwhile, Penn State's Sean Clifford was being harassed most every time he looked to throw. Pitt's aggressive, crowding defense sacked him three times and pressured him twice more before halftime.
It wasn't until midway through the third quarter that Clifford and the offense put together a sustained drive of any substance.
Because of all of that, the Panthers seemed to grow with each small success. By the fourth quarter they were making contested catches in the biggest moments, Pickett was escaping pressure time and again and they were stopping the Lions' offense every time the game looked to be finished.