Zach Zwinak ripped off his helmet and took a long walk down the sideline at Ohio Stadium as Bill O’Brien followed him, barking at the junior running back after Zwinak lost his second fumble in two games.
Zwinak never turned around. His own anger matched that of O’Brien’s after a harmless bump into Ty Howle as Zwinak tried to maneuver around the Penn State center caused the fumble that Ohio State recovered. Overall, it was Zwinak’s eighth fumble and seventh lost over the last 13 games dating back to last season. His frustration was evident. He dropped to a knee, put his helmet back on and never took it off until the game was over.
Although he kept his helmet on, Penn State’s most physically imposing running back never returned to the game.
Meanwhile, Bill Belton earned his first start of the season and played inspired football, churning out the most yards any running back has mustered against the Ohio State defense. Akeel Lynch also played for the first time since he was used sparingly against Indiana and made the most of his touches, rushing for 35 yards on 11 carries.
“If there’s one guy making mistakes, obviously, the other two guys are going to play more,” O’Brien said. “Right now Zach’s got a little bit of a fumble issue. I do think it’s a little bit mental. I talked to him for a long time (Monday).”
Now, Zwinak’s got some work to do to earn back O’Brien’s trust that he can carry the football without coughing it up.
While he was adept at bulling over opposing defenders last season, Zwinak’s fumble issues surfaced when he lost two at Iowa. He carried the ball a total of 128 times after the first fumble of his career and put the ball on the ground four more times, or once every 26 carries dating to the end of last season’s finale against Wisconsin.
It’s been worse this season. Zwinak has carried the ball 64 times and fumbled three times, or once every 21 rushes. By comparison, five of the top eight running backs by yards per carry in the Big Ten have fumbled just once.
Like Zwinak, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah also has three fumbles, but Abdullah has carried the ball 133 times and is fumbling once every 44 carries. Michigan’s Fitzgerald Toussaint is the other top-eight back with multiple fumbles (2) and is putting the ball on the ground once every 76 carries.
“It’s hard. (Zwinak’s) a tough player and he wants to do great like all of us so it’s hard on him sometimes,” guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “We’re always going to encourage him. I know he’s a great player and he can do really good things for this team so I’m always going to encourage him and so is everyone on the offensive line and the team.”
DaQuan Jones leads the Big Ten with 81/2 tackles for loss and is second among Penn State players with 40 tackles on the season.
He’s done most of his work while nursing a sore shoulder. O’Brien added Jones to the list of Nittany Lions playing through pain on Tuesday.
“He’s another guy. There’s a lot of guys like this, Mike Hull, that are playing with some injuries and playing through it,” O’Brien said. “DaQuan had a shoulder strain, got a back issue. He’s playing through it — very good player and very tough kid.”
So far, Jones hasn’t seemed like a player who needs a rest. He’s played a hefty amount of snaps this season and has spent time at defensive end in addition to his normal spot at tackle. Jones’ NFL Draft stock currently has him as the eighth-best defensive tackle, according to CBSSports.com.
Amos on the corner
There’s no question Adrian Amos is one of the most versatile players the Penn State defense has at its disposal.
Not only did Amos post the second-best 40-yard dash time (4.45 seconds) and second-highest vertical leap (351/2 inches) this past spring, he’s played a lot of snaps at safety and cornerback. Primarily, Amos has lined up at safety this season after playing corner alongside the departed Stephon Morris last season.
Now, the 6-foot, 215-pound Amos likely will play corner for most of the rest of this season.
“I think Adrian right now is best suited to play corner and I think that gives us our best secondary back there when we have Adrian and Jordan (Lucas) at corner,” O’Brien said.
Amos got a taste of playing safety last season when he moved to the back end on third-down situations. He stood in permanently for the first six games of this season while Trevor Williams transitioned from wide receiver to corner alongside Jordan Lucas. But Williams played sparingly against Ohio State and Amos took over his corner spot while Malcolm Willis, Jesse Della Valle and Ryan Keiser handled most of the work from the safety spots.
O’Brien said this will likely be the personnel Penn State uses from this point on.