CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Admit it. When Silas Redd fled for Southern California this past summer, you didn’t have Zach Zwinak tabbed as Penn State’s first 100-yard rusher of 2012.
Bill Belton? Likely. Derek Day? Possibly. Curtis Dukes? Potentially. Michael Zordich? Wishfully. But Zwinak?
Well, the sophomore defied preseason odds again with another solid effort in Saturday’s 35-7 victory over Illinois.
Zwinak became the first Nittany Lion to reach triple digits as he gained 100 yards on 19 carries against the Fighting Illini. The performance followed an 18-carry, 94-yard effort in last weekend’s 24-13 victory over Temple.
“The 100 mark is the mark for most running backs,” Zwinak said. “You want to get to three digits. Regardless if we get that or not, I got one touchdown and the team won.”
The final part of Zwinak’s statement required a correction. He actually scored twice, registering the Nittany Lions’ first and final touchdowns on 1-yard runs.
“One is touchdown is good for me,” he modestly said.
After rushing for two yards on three carries through the first three games, Zwinak, one of the nation’s top fullback recruits in 2010, has developed into a major factor in an increasingly crowded backfield.
His surge has coincided with the return of Belton and Day from injuries. Belton sprained his left ankle in the season opener against Ohio University and missed three games. Day separated his shoulder a week later at Virginia and missed two games.
The injuries created tailback opportunities for Zwinak and Zordich, who both weigh more than 230 pounds. Zwinak, who tore his ACL midway through the 2010 season, said he’s grateful for any carries he receives.
“It’s D-1 college football,” he said. “Who wouldn’t be happy being out there? Whether it’s one play to run, one play to block, getting on the field and helping my team win is all that matters.”
Zwinak helped the Nittany Lions tie their season high with 173 rushing yards. Belton added 65 yards on 16 carries. More importantly, the shifty Belton looked comfortable making cuts.
“I love playing with my teammates,” said Belton, a wide receiver last season. “It was definitely great getting back out here. I enjoyed the game, the atmosphere. We did a lot of good things. Zach did a lot of good things. We have five running backs who can do different things. It was a great opportunity for the running backs and the offense.”
Put him back in
Junior tight end Matt Lehman had an interesting halftime.
His first half ended when he was drilled by an illegal helmet-to-helmet hit by Illinois safety Earnest Thomas after catching a 21-yard touchdown pass. Lehman went to the locker room, where he took a series of tests to determine whether he could return.
“They asked me a couple of questions to see if I know the answers to them,” he said. “I got them right.”
Lehman said questions included the score of the game and what play he ran on the touchdown reception. Lehman had a strong second half, catching four more passes to finish with a team-high 70 receiving yards.
“I’m feeling good now,” he said. “I got knocked out a little bit. I was a little messed up. They took my helmet from me when I got on the sideline and I was done for the rest of the half. But when we got into halftime, I got better.”
Thomas was ejected from the game for the hit.
He's also back
Belton and Day weren’t the only offensive players to return from injuries. Redshirt freshman left tackle Donovan Smith returned from an ankle injury that forced him to miss two games.
The 6-foot-5, 316-pound Smith drew some tough assignments, including frequent matchups with Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan, a potential high NFL draft pick.
“He gives us a lot of things,” Belton said. “He’s a great pass blocker and run blocker. It’s great to have him back. He does a lot of great things.”
Junior strong safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was removed early in the third quarter because of cramps. … State College graduate Alex Kenney caught four passes for 24 yards. ... Pittsburgh Steelers running back and former Illinois great Rashard Mendenall attended the game. ... Kicker Sam Ficken missed two more field goals. He has missed six (2-for-8) this season.
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy