The happiest player on Penn State’s roster this week might be sophomore running back Zach Zwinak.
Once buried on the depth chart behind Silas Redd, Bill Belton, Derek Day, Curtis Dukes, and perhaps, true freshman Akeel Lynch, Zwinak has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in four of the Nittany Lions’ past six games.
Publicly, Zwinak will never admit it. Privately, today’s game against Indiana at Beaver Stadium might excite Penn State’s leading rusher more than any other matinee.
Indiana allowed 564 rushing yards in last week’s 62-14 loss to Wisconsin. That translates into 564 reasons the Nittany Lions (6-4, 4-2) might resort to overpowering the Hoosiers (4-6, 2-4).
“I follow some of it,” Zwinak said. “The coaches have been telling us about it. They are still a good defense. They have two good tackles, big guys upfront. It’s going to be a challenge. Wisconsin is known for running the ball.”
Besides senior tackles Will Black and Adam Replogle, the Hoosiers bring an inexperienced defense into conference games. Five projected starters are sophomores. Another one, defensive end Zack Shaw, is a redshirt freshman.
Safety Greg Heban, the Hoosiers’ leading tackler, arrived at Indiana as a Division I pitcher who played intramural flag football on the side. Indiana has a thriving intramural program and the school’s giant fraternities are known for fielding some talented teams.
But flag football doesn’t force somebody to shed blockers such as Donovan Smith, Miles Dieffenbach, Matt Stankiewitch, John Urschel and Mike Farrell, the quintet comprising Penn State’s starting offensive line. The group has helped the shy Zwinak develop a gameday swagger.
Running into a strong headwind to begin last week’s game at Nebraska, Zwinak raced 50 yards for an early touchdown. The play was Penn State’s longest from scrimmage under coach Bill O’Brien.
Zwinak’s line at the end of the game: 21 carries, 141 yards, 6.7 yards per carry, one touchdown. Zwinak also surpassed 100 yards against Illinois, Northwestern and Purdue. He enters today with a team-leading 686 yards on 138 carries.
Had Redd decided not to leave for Southern California last summer, Zwinak might not have received anything beyond a few gratuitous carries this season. Zwinak now has a chance to outgain Redd, who has 732 yards on 135 carries.
“I wouldn’t have necessarily have thought that,” Zwinak said. “It is what it is.”
Three Wisconsin players nearly rushed for 100 yards last week as the Badgers averaged 8.8 yards per carry. Those numbers might be difficult to duplicate. But the Hoosiers’ run defense allows a conference-worst 244 rushing yards per game.
Here’s guessing O’Brien, who doubles as offensive coordinator, has examined those numbers more than once.
“Every week is different,” O’Brien said. “We’re going to do what we do.”
Penn State attempted a season-high 52 running plays against Illinois and Iowa. Don’t be surprised if the number is exceeded today.
“Anytime a defense gives up that number of rushing yards I’m sure they weren’t pleased with it,” Farrell said of Indiana. “We don’t want to hear that. Indiana’s defense has played well in a number of games this year and it’s something we were looking at (Monday). We definitely won’t allow that to let us overlook their defense this week.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.