You never want to overreact to one carry. But man, was it a good one.
Late in the fourth quarter Saturday of Penn State’s 38-14 dismantling of Maryland at Beaver Stadium, freshman running back Miles Sanders took a handoff, swept around the right side and sliced his way 25 yards into the end zone for the game’s final score and the first touchdown of his Penn State career.
It looked effortless, thanks to the raw athleticism you’d expect from a 5-star recruit ranked as the nation’s No. 1 running back and the top recruit in the state of Pennsylvania in the Class of 2016 while playing at Woodland Hills High School near Pittsburgh.
Now it might be time for the Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) to get that explosiveness onto the field a lot more.
After the touchdown run Saturday, Sanders has 66 yards on six carries this season for a breathtaking 11 yards per carry. That’s obviously a small sample size, but he’s also performed admirably returning kickoffs, averaging 21.3 yards on 11 returns with a long of 33.
The one cloud hanging over his performances has been fumbles. He already has 2 this season in that limited playing time, which appears to have put him in coach James Franklin’s dog house. Sanders didn’t play in the Oct. 1 win against Minnesota and saw just that one carry against the Terrapins.
Time to move past that — if not because Sanders is one of the more gifted runners on the team, then because the most gifted runner, Saquon Barkley, could use a breather during games. Barkley carried 31 times for 202 yards against Maryland, already his fourth game with 20-plus carries this season.
Barkley is on pace to lug it 253 times, assuming a Penn State bowl game. That’s a lot of wear and tear on the engine of your offense, and mixing Sanders in more often would go a long way toward mitigating that heavy work load and keeping Barkley fresh.
Penn State tried to accomplish that with sophomore Mark Allen on Saturday, but it never worked as spectacularly as it did with Sanders. Allen got seven carries and gained 31 yards for an average of 4.4. In his career, Allen averages 3.5 yards per carry. Sanders should get the chance to do better.
Sure, the fumbles are a concern, and Sanders is a freshman with all of the issues that come with his inexperience, from learning the complexities of a college offense to picking up blocking assignments in the passing game. Franklin and offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead are seeing his progress, or perhaps lack thereof, in those areas every day at practice.
But he doesn’t need to be carrying those responsibilities on an every-down basis to make an impact. With his athleticism, Sanders probably only needs five-to-seven carries a game right now to keep the pressure on opposing defenses when Barkley is getting breaks on the sideline.
Such a timeshare has worked out well for Maryland. Freshman Lorenzo Harrison actually has more carries than Ty Johnson, his sophomore counterpart, but both have racked up more than 300 yards this season and are averaging at least 8.2 yards per carry. And Minnesota has three runners with more than 200 yards, all averaging at least 4.8 yards per carry.
There’s no reason Penn State can’t replicate the success of those two teams it has beaten in consecutive weeks and establish more of a rotation in the backfield, especially if the Nittany Lions are going to run the ball 60 times a game, as they did Saturday.
Sanders has the physical skills to make it work and just needs to start refining them. Saturday’s touchdown should be the catalyst that accelerates that process, with more touches in the coming weeks.