Penn State turned to one of its youngest players to replenish production lost from keeping a big offensive threat at home.
True freshman tight end Jesse James received an expanded role in Saturday's 34-9 victory over Purdue. James led Nittany Lion tight ends with three catches for 49 yards. He caught a 12-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter of the rout.
“Jesse is really coming along,” quarterback Matt McGloin said. “He’s really adjusting to the offense and he’s not a freshman anymore. He’s doing a really great job of making plays.”
This past week accelerated James’ development. Redshirt freshman tight end Kyle Carter, the team’s second leading receiver, suffered an ankle injury in the fourth quarter of last weekend’s 35-23 loss to Ohio State. The injury proved severe enough to prevent Carter from traveling to Purdue.
Carter plays the ‘F’ tight end position, a spot designed to give the offense an added receiving spot. James and Carter have contrasting bodies and talents. James stands 6-foot-7 and weighs 264 pounds. Carter is 6-3, 247.
Still, coach Bill O’Brien used James in some of the same ways he utilizes Carter. At one point in the third quarter, James lined up as a fullback, ran a pass route and made a reception that went for 35 yards. Carter has lined up as a fullback multiple times this season.
After the game, O’Brien praised James’ development. James enrolled last January, which allowed him to participate in spring drills. James has shared playing time with Carter, Garry Gilliam and Matt Lehman this season.
“He’s different than Kyle,” O’Brien said. “He’s obviously a bigger guy and different with how his body type is. But he did some things. He’s one of our most improved players. From spring until now, he’s in the top five of the most improved players on our roster.”
Reaching 100 again
Sophomore Zach Zwinak learned Friday that he would serve as Penn State’s primary running back. He reacted to encouraging news with another big game.
Zwinak helped Penn State batter Purdue by rushing for a career-high 134 yards on 21 carries. The performance marked Zwinak’s third 100-yard game in Big Ten play. He gained 100 yards at Illinois and 121 a week later against Northwestern.
“I was excited,” Zwinak said. “This was the first start of the year for me. I knew I had to come in and run the plays the way that we practiced them and do my job.”
Zwinak replaced sophomore Bill Belton as the starting running back. Belton didn’t receive one carry and spent most of the game on the bench. Fullback Michael Zordich, who rushed for 33 yards and two touchdowns, was the only other running back to receive a carry Saturday.
“Belton wasn’t hurt,” O’Brien said. “You have to earn it on a practice field. I felt like (Zwinak) deserved a start. I was upfront with Billy about that. I like Billy and I think Billy is going to be a starter again at some point because he’s going to fight and compete.”
One of Penn State’s longest streaks experienced a sudden ending.
Kicker Sam McCartney’s 21-yard field goal gave the Boilermakers a 3-0 lead 2:01 into the game. The kick hit the right upright before dropping in.
The points were the first yielded by Penn State in a first quarter this season. The Nittany Lions entered the game outscoring opponents 66-0 in the quarter. Penn State ended the quarter leading 10-3.
The Nittany Lions have outscored opponents 137-33 in the first half.
Getting them ready
Three days before the game, linebacker Mike Hull told reporters strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald has licked the floor during workouts.
On Saturday, Fitzgerald found another odd motivational ploy. He removed his shirt and pounced on the Ross-Ade Stadium grass during pregame drills. Never mind temperatures resting below 40 degrees. Fitzgerald was wearing shorts and a T-shirt before, during and after the game.
Penn State’s pregame drills featured some other spirited moments, including one where coach O’Brien gathered the team in a circle and shouted instructions.
O’Brien said he “believes” junior running back Curtis Dukes suffered a concussion on the opening kickoff. Dukes didn’t return after the play. ... Cornerback Stephon Morris, defensive tackle Cody Castor and tackle Mike Farrell served as captains. ... State College High School graduate Alex Kenney replaced Belton as one of Penn State’s kickoff returners. ... Redshirt freshman wide receiver Matt Zanellato’s 8-yard reception midway through the third quarter was his first catch at Penn State.