If Penn State needed a spark in the running game last season, the Nittany Lion coaching staff turned to someone other than Bill Belton.
That’s not the case anymore.
On Saturday, Belton provided an instant jolt to a Penn State offense desperate for production against a short-handed, three-touchdown underdog MAC foe. He ran for 90 yards on 13 carries with 60 first-half yards to kickstart Penn State’s 34-0 beatdown of Kent State at Beaver Stadium.
Belton was one part of a three-pronged Penn State rushing attack that gouged the Golden Flashes for 287 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. While Zach Zwinak picked up 65 yards and three scores on 15 carries, Akeel Lynch added 123 yards on 14 tries and Von Walker mopped up with 10 yards on four carries to close out the game, it was Belton whose first series yielded the dynamic results Penn State needed.
He picked up a blitz on first down, giving true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg time to hit tight end Kyle Carter for a 29-yard gain. Belton added 18 yards on the ground on three carries before hauling in a 15-yard touchdown pass on third-and-goal to cap a nine-play, 87-yard drive in the first quarter and begin his team’s rout.
“He did a good job today and he was fun to watch,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said.
Belton struggled to catch on last season as he transitioned from wide receiver to running back, and an early-season ankle injury dogged him the rest of the way. Zwinak emerged and handled the bulk of the rushing duties from the midpoint to the end of the season.
Now, Zwinak doesn’t have to carry the load by himself. He has Belton and Lynch to help him out. O’Brien hasn’t been shy about using all of them, as he did on Saturday.
When Penn State’s usually potent passing attack struggled to move the ball through the air, Penn State got big gains — an average of 6.6 yards per carry — from Belton, Lynch and Zwinak. Hackenberg finished with just 13 completions on 35 attempts for 176 yards and an interception. His lone touchdown pass went to Belton, who made a last-second adjustment on the ball before diving into the end zone.
“I believe in using a lot of backs. I really do,” O’Brien said. “Some teams want to use one back. Sometimes we do, we try to go with the hot back, but we think that all three of these guys are good football players. They’re practicing well. It’s a competitive spot. We think all three deserve to play so we rotate them in there. I thought all three played well tonight.”
Belton went right back to work on Penn State’s next drive in the second quarter.
After Hackenberg hit Brandon Felder for a 17-yard gain on first down, Belton surged through holes for six- and three-yard gains before Hackenberg picked up a first down on a quarterback sneak. A play later, Belton ripped off a 28-yard run, cutting back to the left before being brought down at the Kent State 25-yard-line. Kent State’s Darius Polk brought Belton down by his facemask, however, and Penn State set up its offense at Kent State’s 12-yard-line.
Belton got the ball again on the next play and carried a defender up the middle for a five-yard gain. Three plays later, Zwinak plunged in from two yards out to give Penn State a 14-0 lead.
Penn State’s defense was up to the task afterward, forcing five Kent State punts and a turnover. It was a recurring theme as Kent State’s offense was ineffective all afternoon. Glenn Carson led Penn State with seven tackles while Deion Barnes, Kyle Baublitz and Ryan Keiser all notched sacks. Keiser added an interception.
But the Nittany Lion offense sputtered as it went away from the run game. On five possessions between Zwinak’s first score and Penn State’s next scoring drive, the Nittany Lions opted to run 17 passing plays and just eight runs and had an interception, a turnover on downs and three punts to show for their efforts.
Then Belton was the spark again.
When Penn State took over with 7:48 to play in the third quarter, Belton got three straight carries and cut precise lanes up the field for 19 yards. He added another 14 yards with two more carries on the drive with 11 coming on a juking run up the middle with Belton nearly getting into the end zone. He extended the ball but it was determined Belton was down just short of the goal line.
Zwinak entered and plowed in for the one-yard score.
“Those were Bill’s touchdowns,” Zwinak said.
Belton was upset with himself that he didn’t finish the run by getting into the end zone, but was happy his teammate finished it off.
“We play off each other. That’s what we pride ourselves on,” Belton said. “We go in each week and compete with each other. Whoever has a big game, whether it’s Zach, Akeel or me, we’re all happy for each other.”
The end of the third quarter and most of the fourth belonged to Lynch.
On Penn State’s final drive of the third, the redshirt freshman ripped off a 43-yard run on first down and added 17 yards combined on his next three carries. Lynch added 12 yards on his next three attempts to help set Sam Ficken up for a 25-yard field goal that gave Penn State a 24-0 lead.
After another Kent State punt, Lynch entered again and went for 26 yards on first down. He added 19 yards on his next five carries but coughed up a fumble that Penn State’s Angelo Mangiro recovered at the Kent State 11. Zwinak came in for some power running and chewed up four yards before plowing ahead for another one-yard score to give Penn State a 31-0 lead.
“When you rotate backs like that it helps you remain fresh,” Belton said. “The defense will all be worn down. They’re tired. Zach wears them down. I do a good job of that and whoever goes in around that time, defenses don’t really want to tackle you.”
Von Walker was the fourth Penn State running back to get involved. He picked up eight yards on four carries before Ficken trotted out and nailed a career-long 54-yard field goal with 2:45 left to cap the scoring.
Afterward, in the Beaver Stadium media room, Belton, Lynch and Zwinak weren’t the only players smiling when asked about the running game’s success.
“That’s always awesome because we put a lot of work in in practice to work on our run game,” senior tackle Adam Gress said, “and I think it just says a lot about us up front when we’re able to push guys around and get Zwinny and Akeel and Bill and all those guys to really punch it in there.”