UNIVERSITY PARK — By the end of Saturday’s game at Beaver Stadium, a few Kent State defenders had grown pretty familiar with Penn State’s running back corps.
And while Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch all proved difficult for the Golden Flashes to contain as the trio combined for 278 yards and four touchdowns, it was their combined physicality in the passing game that helped keep the Kent State pass rush at bay.
Belton, Zwinak and Lynch stayed in the pocket to help protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg a combined 24 times. They picked up 12 of 13 blitzes thrown their way when they were assigned pass protection duties, and gave up just one hurry of Hackenberg among them.
“It’s one of the most important things at the college level, especially if you want to get higher up in the NFL,” Zwinak said. “That’s one thing they always teach is anyone can run the ball, it’s who can pass block.”
Zwinak set the tone immediately when he squared up on Kent State’s Mark Fackler on the game’s first play. Fackler never made it close to Hackenberg as he was met by Zwinak at the line, giving Hackenberg time to find Jesse James for a four-yard gain.
Penn State’s biggest back at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Zwinak successfully picked up five blitzes while Belton chipped blitzers on another five plays. Lynch stayed in to block four times and defended against two pass rushers.
Zwinak said pass protection is usually the hardest thing for a college running back to learn.
“Picking up some of these blitzes is hard,” Zwinak said. “Teams get creative with it and they do a good job disguising blitzes.”
So Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler has made a habit of disguising his own blitzes during 11-on-11 drills in practice. In addition, the Nittany Lions use film sessions each week with running backs coach Charles London to identify would-be blitzers. They also take time to listen in on the offensive line drills as communication with linemen is critical for each running back to know which player may come unblocked up front.
“We always talk about blitz pickups and what do we see,” Zwinak said. “That’s the biggest thing.”
So far, the work they’ve put in at practice and in the film room has paid off. Only once on Saturday did a blitzer who was supposed to be picked up by a Penn State running back slip around his man.
On Penn State’s ninth drive of the game, Kent State linebacker Matt Dellinger joined a swarm of Golden Flash blitzers on beelines to Hackenberg. He got around Belton while Zach Hitchens beat left tackle Donovan Smith to force an early and incomplete throw from Hackenberg.
Save for that play, Belton was Penn State’s most effective running back in blitz pickups as the Penn State coaching staff utilized him the most in pass protection.
Belton was assigned pass protection detail 13 times. And while Kent State didn’t blitz every time he stayed in the pocket, Belton successfully and forcefully defended against five of six blitzes when it was his turn. The 200-pound Belton turned away rushes from Fackler — a player who outweighs him by 50 pounds — twice and repelled 230-pound Nate Vance two times.
On Penn State’s third offensive series of the game, Belton stepped up in an open hole to freeze Matt Dellinger who started toward Hackenberg. When Belton realized Dellinger wouldn’t blitz, he released into the flat, forcing the Kent State linebacker to give chase. It opened up the middle of the field for Hackenberg to hit tight end Kyle Carter for a 29-yard gain.
Two plays later Belton blasted Fackler just as the Kent State defensive end crossed the line of scrimmage to give Hackenberg ample time to hit Allen Robinson for an 18-yard gain.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said he’s seen Belton transition from a player who was inconsistent and banged up while trying to learn a new position last season to becoming more of a complete running back this year.
“When you look at when we came here and we moved him from receiver to running back, I think it takes a little time,” O’Brien said. “Even though he was a high school quarterback, he had played in the backfield. It takes a little time. And then he got injured. He had a high ankle sprain a lot last year so he missed a lot of time.”
Now Belton is reaping the benefits as one prong of Penn State’s three-pronged rushing attack. Lynch is the third option and has also taken on pass blocking duties.
“I think I’ve really got a feel for that and the more you get into it the more you see it quicker,” Lynch said. “It’s definitely film work but I think to be an effective blocker you have to go out there and see the blitzes firsthand. On film you can pause it and pick up what’s going on but you can’t pause the game in real life.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.