The play required no fancy footwork.
Zach Zwinak had two objectives when Penn State broke the huddle to begin last Saturday’s fourth quarter against Illinois. Run straight ahead. Run as hard as possible.
Zwinak plowed forward, dragging along Illini linebacker Mason Monheim. He lowered his helmet, continued churning his legs and ended the play by crashing into defensive end Michael Buchanan and safety Pat Nixon-Youman.
Zwinak gained eight yards. Buchanan and Nixon-Youman both hobbled off the field.
An afterthought in the spring, a potential third-stringer when preseason camp starter, Zwinak will enter Saturday’s homecoming against 24th-ranked Northwestern (5-0) as Penn State’s leading rusher. The 6-foot-1, 232-pound sophomore has gained 194 of his 196 yards in the past two weeks.
“He will take a hit and keep pushing forward,” quarterback Matt McGloin said. “One guy is not going to bring him down.”
The blue-collar runs make Penn State defenders thankful they aren’t the ones tackling Zwinak.
“He’s like a Mac Truck coming through there,” safety Malcolm Willis said. “He has really strong legs. He’s determined to get any positive yardage that he can.”
The recent stretch, which included a 100-yard performance at Illinois and 94-yard effort against Temple, has surprised Zwinak.
“It was shocking,” he said. “I didn’t expect to come in like that. I get into the game, run the ball and take what the defense gives me. I’m just fortunate that the line was great. They opened holes and blocked really yard.”
A punishing pedigree and opportunities created by injuries to Bill Belton, Derek Day and Michael Zordich are aiding Zwinak’s rise.
In the days before Bill O’Brien’s three- and four-receiver sets, Penn State awarded scholarships to fullbacks. And there weren’t many teenagers better at the position than Zwinak. Consider his numbers as a senior at Linganore (Md.) High School: 2,109 yards on 164 carries and 25 touchdowns. He averaged 12.9 yards per carry, inflicting an unknown number of bruises and welts on helpless defenders.
“I have always been a downhill runner,” he said. “I’m not a shifty guy like Bill or D-Day. I’m a a bigger kid. My dad and my coaches always taught me to get my pads down, get up the field and take what the defense gives you. If it’s a short run, fine. If it’s a long run, great.”
Midway through the 2010 season, his first year at Penn State, there would be no runs. Zwinak suffered a torn ACL, a painful injury that dropped him further down a fullback depth that included Joe Suhey and Zordich. With Suhey and Zordich returning in 2011, Zwinak could methodically return from the injury.
Suhey’s career ended last fall, and Penn State’s offense started changing with O’Brien’s hiring in January. Spring practice opened with a crowded backfield as Zwinak competed with Belton, Day and Zordich for any carries Silas Redd didn’t receive.
The summer included a major departure, with Redd transferring to Southern California after the NCAA levied major sanctions against Penn State. But the program added a back before preseason camp, with 6-foot-1, 245-pound junior Curtis Dukes rejoining the team. Dukes missed spring drills for academic reasons.
The backfield temporarily started thinning when Belton suffered an ankle injury in the season-opener against Ohio University. Day separated his shoulder a week later at Virginia, a game where Zwinak rushed for two yards on three carries. Zordich and Dukes split carries against Navy.
On his way to a possible 100-yard game two weeks ago against Temple, Zordich injured his knee. O’Brien and running backs coach Charles London inserted Zwinak, who wore the Owls down during the final 20 minutes. Zwinak then started Big Ten play by exhausting an Illinois defense featuring linemen and linebackers receiving serious NFL looks.
O’Brien accelerated the offense with Zwinak in the game, often snapping the ball before the play call reached 10 seconds.
The Fighting Illini wilted early in the fourth quarter, with many of Zwinak’s yards coming after initial contact. Facing runners with different styles – Belton and Day returned last week – flustered Illinois.
“Honestly, I would love to have a little more shiftiness than I do now,” he said. “But I like the way I run now. I have always been a bigger kid and have tried to use my size to my advantage anyway possible.”
It doesn’t sound like Zwinak’s teammates want him to change.
“The great thing about Zach is the type of person he is,” McGloin said. “If you saw the way he was acting at Illinois, he was happy to get on the field and get carries. He has worked hard He has been through a lot here. He was buried on the depth chart for a while, and once he got an opportunity, he made the most of it. He understands that four or five yards is a good play.”
Follow Guy Cipriano on Twitter @cdtguy.