Walt Moody | Penn State commentary: O’Brien, Nittany Lions learn lesson from Indiana

November 17, 2013 

— Bill O’Brien isn’t inflexible.

You could almost say the coach is coachable.

Earlier this season against Indiana, owner of one of the nation’s worst run defenses, the Nittany Lions passed 55 times. They also lost 44-24.

On Saturday, another team from Indiana with a terrible run defense came to Beaver Stadium.

O’Brien, the Nittany Lions’ play-caller, began the game nine running plays in a 13-play touchdown drive and kept right on running.

By the time it was over, the Nittany Lions had rushed 58 times for 289 yards and five touchdowns in burying overmatched Purdue 45-21.

Zach Zwinak was the hammer than pounded the Boilermakers (1-9) into submission. Zwinak rushed for 149 yards and three scores, while Bill Belton added 81 yards and a touchdown.

Over the course of the contest, Penn State racked up a whopping 31 first downs and amassed a nearly 13-minute edge in time of possession.

And maybe, just maybe, it reinforced a new identity with this team.

Following the blowout, O’Brien bristled after the came when a question started with the inference that he liked to pass the ball more than run it.

"I don't like to throw the ball. I like to be balanced," O’Brien said. "I like to do things that are best for the football team. Since the day, I walked in the door here, I try to do what's best for this football team and these players every single day --- whether it's a play call, a recruiting strategy or a game strategy. I don't like to do one thing versus the other. I like to be balanced and do what's best for the football team and today it was running the ball."

At least a couple of his players would like to see it stay that way.

"I see us more as a running team, personally," said offensive tackle Gilliam. "I wouldn’t mind us running more. Obviously, the last few weeks you’ve seen that. … When we pound the ball like that, it really wears a defense down."

And, Purdue gave no indication it was going to stop Penn State. The Nittany Lions had to stop themselves. They never punted in the contest and only turned the ball over twice on a fumble and an interception.

"Our goal honestly coming in was to get 400 yards rushing," Gilliam said. "Obviously, we fell a little bit short, but close to 300 is a great game, regardless."

A vibrant running game eases the pressure on quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The true freshman, who entered the game with a conference-leading 306 attempts, tied a season-low with 23 tosses against the Boilermakers. He hit on 16 of them for 212 yards and a score.

"It’s everything," tight end Jesse James said of a successful running game. "It sets up the play-action. Just running the ball well gives everyone confidence."

Penn State, which had been having trouble scoring touchdowns in the red zone during conference play, had six TDs in seven trips inside the 20 Saturday.

All day long, the Nittany Lions had short third-down conversions and O’Brien didn’t even have to gamble on fourth down.

"Anytime, in my opinion, you can physically dominate the line of scrimmage, it's a good thing," O’Brien said. "You go in there and you're in manageable downs and distances, especially on third down."

The running game also kept a beleaguered Penn State defense a break, too. The longer that unit is off the field, the better.

Maybe the extra rest helped as the Nittany Lions forced three turnovers that led to 21 points.

"It’s huge," linebacker Mike Hull said. "They eat up the clock and keep us off the field and it allows us to rest up. And, they’re getting seven points out of it every time. That’s huge when the offense can do that."

The triumph, coming off a deflating 24-10 loss against Minnesota, pushed Penn State to 6-4 on the season, 3-3 in league play. The Nittany Lions could match last season’s 8-4 mark with wins over Nebraska and Wisconsin, though it’s likely they’ll be underdogs in both games.

A win over Purdue, which has now been outscored 238-52 in league games, isn’t going to scare the Cornhuskers or Badgers.

But maybe it gives Penn State a little confidence.

With a big running game, that’s something that will worry any opponent.

And maybe there’s a lesson to be learned there.

Walt Moody is sports editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4630 or wmoody@centredaily.com. Follow him on Twitter @wmoodycdy

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