Penn State brings balance to running game
Zach Zwinak scored the short-yardage touchdowns. Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch kept Penn State perfect with some distance running scores.
The Nittany Lions’ offense is a whole lot more than quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
An afterthought in the opener, Penn State used a fully loaded backfield to put away Eastern Michigan last week at home. Sure, no one will confuse the Eagles with Michigan. But watching Zwinak, Belton and Lynch burst through with big games gave coach Bill O’Brien plenty of reason to trust his three options at running back.
“Running back by committee isn’t so bad when you have three good running backs,” O’Brien said Tuesday.
Belton and Lynch each rushed for 108 yards for Penn State (2-0). And Belton and Zwinak both scored two touchdowns.
O’Brien said he liked having multiple options behind Hackenberg, and believed it’s important to have all three playing well heading into Saturday’s game against Central Florida.
Belton and Lynch gave Penn State two 100-yard rushers in a game for the first time since Evan Royster and Silas Redd did it in 2010 against Northwestern. The Nittany Lions had two 100-yard rushers for the 32nd time in school history.
“I like all three of these guys playing,” O’Brien said. “One of the things we try and do is, if a guy gets really hot, we’ll stick with the hot back. I just think it’s hard for one of these guys to come out of the game and not play.”
Lynch was the odd back out in the opener against Syracuse. But he topped the backs with 13 carries in the 45-7 win against the Eagles.
The trio can only help ease the pressure on Hackenberg, a freshman off to one of the best starts in program history. Hackenberg is 45 of 64 for 589 yards passing and three touchdowns. All three scores have been 45 yards or longer. He set the Penn State single-game freshman record for yards passing with 311 against EMU, also the 17th highest overall mark in team history.
It would be easy to let Hackenberg and wide receiver Allen Robinson handle all the heavy lifting in the offense.
But the running backs want their share.
Belton, who was hurt last season and had one carry in the last four games, stated his case with a 51-yard touchdown run, the longest rush for a score since Evan Royster went 69 yards against Northwestern in 2009.
“It’s not all about running,” Belton said of his role. “It’s about pass pickups and knowing the little things about running back. It’s not about hitting the home run.”
But it’s usually fun to go deep. Lynch tacked on an 18-yard touchdown on the final scoring play of the game to match Belton’s 108 yards.
“In the hotel, you always see yourself making big plays and visualize yourself before,” Lynch said.
He could check out the highlight reel after.
Penn State’s 574 yards of total offense were the most since 2008, and with three capable running backs, perhaps it’ll be matched soon.
“I just go out there not knowing what my job is,” Belton said. “It could be from blocking to screens to running the ball. I’m just going out there trying to be useful to my team.”
Zwinak has yet to get going a year after his breakthrough season. He was the 22nd 1,000-yard rusher in Penn State history, but has only 104 yards rushing this season. The potential is there, though, for him to earn more if gets rolling like he did at the end of last season. He finished 2012 with four straight 100-yard games, including a 179-yard effort against Wisconsin.
He did have TD runs of 2 and 7 yards vs. EMU, but mustered only seven carries.
O’Brien brushed off a question after Saturday’s win about Zwinak’s limited use in two games, noting his 6.1 yards-per-carry average on seven carries.
Keep that average and add about 12 more carries, and Penn State’s NASCAR-fueled offense might indeed to be too tough to tame.