Penn State’s running game encountered a dire situation last month against Temple.
A sprained ankle prevented Bill Belton from playing. A separated shoulder prevented Derek Day from playing. Michael Zordich suffered a knee injury in the second half. Zach Zwinak had yet to develop a rhythm.
“I was checking to see if I had any eligibility left,” running backs coach Charles London joked.
Five weeks later, the 37-year-old London is no longer plotting a comeback.
Big Ten play has revitalized the Nittany Lions’ ground game. Penn State (5-2, 3-0 Big Ten) enters Saturday’s game against Ohio State (8-0, 4-0) following a season-best 215-yard performance at Iowa.
Belton, a sophomore who received the starting tailback job when Silas Redd transferred to Southern California, rushed for 103 yards against the Hawkeyes, the second best run defense Penn State has faced through seven games. Belton declared his ankle healthy after the game and again in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. The sprain forced him to miss three games and slowed him against Illinois and Northwestern.
“Billy’s a natural talent,” Zordich said. “He’s very smooth with the ball, he knows how to make people miss, he can run the ball and I think he knew that. Early in the season, instead of being decisive, he was just trying to make a huge play and you can’t blame him for it. He has the ability to. Coach has been working with all of us about being decisive and making the one cut, getting through the hole and get going. Billy has really been taking that to heart.”
A combination of outside bursts and inside plunges helped Belton post the Nittany Lions’ third straight 100-yard rushing game. Zwinak, a 6-foot-1, 232-pound sophomore recruited as a fullback, battered Northwestern, the top rated run defense Penn State has faced, for 121 yards. Zwinak opened the conference schedule with 100 yards at Illinois.
After averaging 107.6 yards per game in their first three games, the Nittany Lions are averaging 183 in Big Ten play. So much for the theory running totals plummet when Big Ten play begins.
Tight end Garry Gilliam, a key run blocker, said prodding from head coach Bill O’Brien has helped open holes. Coaches insert at least one drill designed to enhance run blocking skills into each practice. The drills reinforce continuous foot movement and stuffing hands into opponents’ chests.
“Coach O’Brien emphasizes to our offensive line and tight ends that we really need to make holes for the running game to open up our passing game,” Gilliam said. “Obviously, passing is very important to us, but running is just as important. We have very, very good running backs and they run hard and they hit the hole when they are supposed to be it.”
Penn State has started to click without Redd, a 1,200-yard rusher last year projected to receive more than 20 carries per game. His departure in late-July eliminated experience from Penn State’s backfield, but it didn’t cause internal panic.
“As Coach London and Coach O’Brien said, it’s the next guy up,” Belton said. “As you have seen with the other backs, nothing has change. The offense, game plan and everything has been the same.”
Holding a 31-0 with 5:52 left in last week’s third quarter, the offense showed its methodical side, embarking on a drive that further deflated the Hawkeyes. The drive started with three inside running plays, two by Zwinak and one by Zordich, It ended with Belton running behind right tackle Mike Farrell and right guard John Urschel and plunging into the end zone.
The the 14-play, 97-yard drive used 6:38. O’Brien called 10 running plays.
“It shows that our run game is a hard one to stop,” Gilliam said. “As long as everyone gets on their man and does their job and running backs hit the hole properly, I think it’s a pretty good scheme. I think we were able to do it in the beginning (of the season). I just don’t think the chemistry was where it is now. Obviously, in the last few games, we have been able to make it click.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.