UNIVERSITY PARK — Don’t look for Iowa’s constantly evolving running back situation to alter Penn State’s work week.
Mark Weisman, one of the Big Ten’s top discoveries this season, suffered a sprained ankle late in the Hawkeyes’ 19-16 double overtime victory at Michigan State last weekend.
Longtime Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday that Weisman is no longer wearing a boot. But Ferentz didn’t sound optimistic about Weisman’s availability for Satuday’s night game against the Nittany Lions. In fact, the sophomore isn’t listed on the depth chart.
“We’re in a real gray issue here,” Ferentz said. “It’s not a black and white thing. It’s not like a broken bone.”
There’s no gray area when it comes to Penn State’s practice itinerary. The Nittany Lions are bracing for the best the Hawkeyes can offer.
“Let me just say this about Weisman,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said, “he’s a very tough, big back that they’ve done an excellent job with. They’ve blocked well for him, and he’s broken tackles and he’s having a heck of a year. And then whoever they bring in next, it doesn’t alter our game plan. We just have to go in there and we have to play against the guys they line up against us.”
Weisman gained 116 yards on 26 carries last week and forced overtime by scoring on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter. He leads the Hawkeyes with 631 yards and eight touchdowns on 100 carries. The bulk of his yards have come in a four-game stretch.
Weisman, an Air Force transfer who joined the Hawkeyes as a walk-on, emerged as Iowa’s top rushing option because of Damon’s Bullock’s head injury and Jordan Canzeri’s torn ACL.
The depth chart illustrates the Hawkeyes’ current plight. True freshman Greg Garmon, who suffered an arm injury earlier this season, is listed as the top tailback. Canzeri, who suffered his injury in spring drills, is listed No. 2. Canzeri hasn’t played this season.
Garmon attended District 10 McDowell High School and received major interest from Penn State. He has gained 36 yards on 14 carries.
Weisman and Garmon possess contrasting styles. The 6-foot, 225-pound Weisman is a bruiser. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Garmon is a burner.
“We realize as of right now he’s not on the depth chart,” Penn State safety Jake Fagnano said, of Weisman. “We are preparing as if he’s going to be playing every down. We are preparing for everybody Iowa has. He’s obviously a big part of their offense and we are preparing as if he’s going to get the ball.”
Penn State can relate to Iowa’s running back dilemma. Starting tailback Bill Belton suffered an ankle injury in the opener against Ohio University and missed three games. Derek Day suffered a shoulder injury in the second game at Virginia and missed two games. Fullback Michael Zordich suffered a knee injury against Navy.
Sophomore Zach Zwinak has become Penn State’s version of Weisman, minus the ankle injury. Buried on the depth chart when the season started, Zwinak has two straight 100-yard rushing games. Practicing against a punishing runner such as Zwinak might help Penn State if Weisman heals fast.
“There are definitely some similarities,” Fagnano said. “They are are both big, strong runners. They are going to push the pile. They are going to hit you. We have gone up against guys like him since camp. Curtis Dukes is another one. We’re prepared. We know what we are up against. It’s just a matter of executing right now.”
Notes: O’Brien said a final decision hasn’t been made on true freshman linebacker Nyeem Wartman’s status for the final six games. Wartman, who suffered a knee injury against Virginia, would likely be eligible for a medical redshirt if he doesn’t return.
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.