UNIVERSITY PARK — Twenty-two wasn’t even Akeel Lynch’s first choice for a jersey number.
When he arrived in State College as a true freshman from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Lynch had his eye on a single digit. The then-true freshman wanted No. 5 — the number he wore his senior season at St. Francis High in Buffalo, N.Y. That number was taken by Bill Belton at the time.
So team equipment manager Brad “Spider” Caldwell suggested a double digit with some historical significance.
“Spider was like, ‘Take 22,’” Lynch said. “So I looked it up — all these greats wore it. This is a pretty big number so I took it and every time I put it on I just remember the guys before me and play for them.”
Shortly after Lynch researched the history of the number and learned about the players who wore it before him — notably Penn State’s lone Heisman Trophy winner John Cappelletti and all-time leading rusher Evan Royster — Belton switched from No. 5 to No. 1. Although his first choice was available, Lynch didn’t want to give up his new number.
“Once I found out the history, I wanted to keep it,” Lynch said.
At halftime of Penn State’s 45-7 win over Eastern Michigan on Saturday, however, Lynch was warned he might have to pick a new number. Caldwell approached the redshirt freshman and filled him in — Penn State was retiring the number to honor Cappelletti, who as a member of the undefeated 1973 team was being recognized during a halftime ceremony.
After Lynch finished the afternoon with 108 rushing yards and a touchdown, Cappelletti approached him in the team’s locker room and told him to hold on to the deuces.
Lynch will be the last player to wear 22. He’s planning on honoring Cappelletti with more games like he had Saturday, when he combined with Belton and Zach Zwinak for 283 of Penn State’s 574 offensive yards. While each back brings a slightly different skill set to the offense, they all provide coach Bill O’Brien with options.
All three backs took turns lining up in the backfield, running behind fullback Pat Zerbe and splitting out wide and lining up in the slot as pass-catching options.
“(O’Brien) is one of the greatest offensive minds in college football so this is his game plan and we’re just fulfilling it,” Belton said. “We have a long way to go offensively. We can’t be excited at this point, we still have some things we need to work on from everybody. This was a good win for us but we’ve got to go back Monday and get ready for a good UCF team.”
With just 71 scholarship players on its roster, Penn State has experienced a youth movement through the first two games of the season and will continue to rely on younger players who might not normally see the field to augment the team’s depth.
Penn State took 16 true freshman and 15 redshirt freshman to MetLife Stadium last week and continued to use young players against Eastern Michigan on Saturday, when another Nittany Lion earned his first start, a few others got to touch the ball for the first time and two others played for the first time this season.
True freshman Adam Breneman earned his first start at tight end, and although he jumped offsides on Penn State’s first offensive play, was able to play a bigger role than last week when he primarily played on special teams. Breneman was instrumental in keeping the team’s last recruiting class together when he and freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg reaffirmed their commitments after the NCAA sanctioned Penn State last summer.
“Adam, he and I stuck it out together I guess you could say,” Hackenberg said. “He’s a great player. He needs to start getting involved a lot more and we’re moving forward from there.”
True freshman Richy Anderson played most of the game and made his first career catch in the second quarter. He finished with two catches for 13 yards. Lynch got his first carry and led Penn State with 13 rushing attempts. True freshmen Brandon Bell and Gregg Garrity also got their first chances to play this season.
Bell checked in at linebacker and played a handful of snaps in the second half while Garritty entered at wide receiver in the fourth quarter.
Penn State continued to struggle on third down conversions and after converting just 1 of 10 third downs against the Eagles is 2-for-26 on the season.
While O’Brien attributed coaching mistakes for his team’s third down struggles against Syracuse, the Nittany Lions were guilty of putting themselves in tough spots against Eastern Michigan.
All together, Penn State needed a combined 126 yards on its 10 third downs on Saturday. Six times the Nittany Lions faced third downs of 10 yards or more and although Penn State picked up an average of 6.2 yards on third down plays, it wasn’t good enough, mostly because penalties and sacks had backed the offense into difficult spots.
Three sacks, two holds and a pass interference penalty turned 13-, 11- and 20-yard gains into fourth-down situations for Penn State after those mistakes forced the Nittany Lions to attack third-and-17, third-and-18 and third-and-24 situations.
You don’t have to watch Eastern Michigan long to realize it is a program that has struggled mightily the last few years. In fact, the Eagles haven’t had a winning season since 1995.
It could be tough for the Eagles to break that streak this season. Already 1-1, Eastern Michigan’s remaining 10 opponents combined to go 73-47 last season and only Buffalo, Army and Western Michigan had losing records.
Eastern Michigan was gifted its only touchdown when Hackenberg fumbled just beyond his own goal line on Saturday.
After that? The Eagles best scoring chances were thwarted by lousy special teams play.
Day to remember
With his normal holder Ryan Keiser out of the game with an injury, kicker Sam Ficken didn’t miss a beat with punter Alex Butterworth holding.
Ficken nailed his only attempt — from 39 yards — to become Penn State’s all-time leader in consecutive kicks made with 14. He broke Craig Fayak’s record of 13 he tied last week with three kicks against Syracuse. Ficken’s increased leg strength was also on display as he booted eight kickoffs for 489 yards with three touchbacks against the Eagles.
Day to forget
It was a tough afternoon for kickers not named Sam Ficken.
Eastern Michigan kicker Dylan Moulder didn’t even get a chance to kick his first field goal attempt from 45 yards when the hold was botched by Mark Ionnatti. Moulder pushed a 42-yarder wide right early in the second quarter.
Butterworth managed just 33.4 net yards per punt while Eastern Michigan’s Austin Barnes didn’t fare much better, punting for a net average of 34.4 yards.
Key play you already forgot
Driving the field early, Eastern Michigan’s offense crossed the 50-yard-line into Penn State territory for the second time with just over six minutes to play in the first quarter.
On the seventh play of the drive the Eagles faced third-and-eight from Penn State’s 45-yard-line and quarterback Tyler Benz lined up in the shotgun with four receivers all in tight to the line of scrimmage. Reserve defensive end Anthony Zettel had relieved starter C.J. Olaniyan and Eastern Michigan left tackle Andrew Wylie went for a cut block against Zettel as the ball was snapped. Wylie got a piece of Zettel but not enough as the Penn State sophomore battled through the block on a straight line to Benz.
Zettel’s pressure forced a hurried throw and the defensive end hopped up and deflected the pass intended for wideout Demarius Reed. The ball fell harmlessly to the grass and the Eagles punted. Eastern Michigan would manage a drive of over seven plays just once more and cross the 50 just one more time the entire game.
“I think my style, as a one-cut runner, I can make you miss. I can go get the big yards, I can get the small yards and that’s what I want to work on, being versatile in every situation,” Lynch said when asked about comparison’s being drawn about him and former NFL running back Mercury Morris — who also wore No. 22.
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.