UNIVERSITY PARK — Bill Belton vowed on Twitter that he was OK.
The Penn State running game may not be, however.
The Nittany Lions rushing attack, which lost Silas Redd before the season began with the junior’s transfer to USC, suffered another blow when Belton went down with an ankle injury midway through a 24-14 loss against Ohio at Beaver Stadium on Saturday.
Before that, Penn State fans watched as backup tailback Derek Day absorbed two scary hits; the first helmet-to-helmet contact knocked Day’s lid off and the second impact came as a matte green Ohio helmet impacted Day’s skull.
For much of the afternoon, the Penn State running game never got off the ground. The Nittany Lions managed 92 yards on 22 attempts compared to Ohio’s 47 carries for 175 yards.
An impressive beginning to the team’s first drive of the season rolled along on the legs of Belton. Acting as a compliment to a quickly effective passing game, Belton scurried 17 yards on four carries before putting the ball on the ground in Ohio territory. The Bobcats recovered the fumble.
“There were times during the game when we had momentum. There were times in the game when they had momentum,” senior center Matt Stankiewitch said of both teams’ running games. “But the times that we have momentum, we have to keep it. We have to execute when we have the ball in the red zone. We have to execute when we have the ball past the 50-yard-line. We have to make sure when doing that to score touchdowns.”
But coach Bill O’Brien opted to move away from the running game on Penn State’s next drive, a quick series that ended after three straight incomplete passes.
Day picked up the pace with a 14-yard burst on the first play of Penn State’s next drive, but the Nittany Lion backup was banged around shortly thereafter after taking a blow from an Ohio helmet to his head after his helmet had come off.
“It’s fine. Just a little bit bruised,” Day said. “A couple of small scratches, but nothing too serious.”
But Penn State suffered from a serious running game deficiency, as O’Brien opted to run the ball just 22 times over 70 plays. After Penn State finished the first half with a 14-3 lead, the Nittany Lions nearly abandoned the running game entirely.
Despite not trailing until there were just under four minutes to play in the third quarter, Penn State called just nine running plays of its 31 total second-half plays.
Belton and Day didn’t get much help, either.
The physically imposing Curtis Dukes was no where to be found in the running back rotation, playing only on special teams. Meanwhile, fullback Michael Zordich carried the ball just once for three yards and was targeted on a fourth-down pass attempt that fell incomplete out of his reach.
Belton finished with 54 yards on 13 carries while Day used eight carries to chew up 36 yards, Day’s 14-yard run in the first quarter was the longest running play Penn State pulled off all afternoon.
The Nittany Lions ran back-to-back rushing plays just four times against Ohio.
“Yeah, there were several times that we were able to run the ball,” Day said. “We had a few drives. We drove the ball pretty well, we just couldn’t finish it.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter@traviswjohnson_.