When he looks back, 2011 seems like so long ago for Bill Belton.
A lot has changed for the Penn State running back since then. He’s got a new jersey number, a few more tattoos and a lot more on- and off-field responsibility for the Nittany Lions. He remembers the last game he played his true freshman season — Penn State’s loss to Houston in the TicketCity Bowl.
Then, Belton’s responsibilities began to grow. He played the most snaps to that point in his career in that game. He was a heavy fixture in the team’s “Wildcat” offense and said the extra practices leading up to the bowl game helped him immensely as he prepared for his sophomore season.
“Having those extra practices gave a younger guy like myself at that time more time to develop and get better after the season,” Belton said. “That definitely helped, not only me but other younger guys going into the spring and for the next season.”
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Belton won’t be around next season to make use of any extra practice time Penn State players could possibly earn this season. But he can help them earn that much-needed time. Penn State (5-4, 2-4 Big Ten) will become bowl eligible with a win against Temple (5-4, 3-3 American Athletic Conference) at Beaver Stadium on Saturday. The game kicks off at noon.
Penn State is in a unique situation. Due to injuries to Ryan Keiser and Zach Zwinak, the Nittany Lions have the nine seniors available to play. The same amount of true freshmen have taken the field this season.
But James Franklin refused to weigh the potential positives for his young squad should they qualify for a bowl game with a win this week.
“We don’t talk about those things,” Franklin said. “We don’t look at those things. We focus on finding a way to beat Temple this week. At the end of the year if someone calls and tells us we have an opportunity to go somewhere, wherever it is, we’ll be excited and fired up about it. Because for us, it’s about keeping the family together as long as we possibly can.”
Beating the Owls and getting that sixth win would be a positive step toward doing just that.
While preparing to face a Temple team coached by former Nittany Lion and State College native Matt Rhule, Penn State players stepped around questions related to more off-field happenings. Players like Belton have had to do that for the duration of their careers at Penn State.
With the black cloud of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, resulting Freeh report and NCAA sanctions in the rear view, Penn State players were asked about recent developments in the seemingly never-ending case. Emails released earlier this week appear to show NCAA officials worked with former FBI director Louis Freeh’s group that was commissioned by Penn State to investigate the Sandusky case.
Franklin, who was hired in January, had nothing to say.
“Temple emails?” the coach said.
Meanwhile, Penn State players — all of them grade-school aged when Sandusky committed the crimes for which he is currently serving a 30 to 60-year sentence — have been in football and class mode.
“The thing is, it’s really kind of hard for us to follow because we’re kind of just focused on Saturday,” senior Brad Bars said. “I really don’t have much time with class and all that stuff to get wrapped up in that stuff.”
The Nittany Lions would prefer to inundate themselves with preparations for Temple. The Owls have suffered from the same maladies as Penn State this season. They’ve been buoyed by a strong, opportunistic defense that has forced 25 turnovers. But offensive deficiencies — including an inability to consistently run the ball — have cost them games.
Penn State’s defense is allowing less than 86 rushing yards per game, a number the Nittany Lions will try to cut down even more. They know they’ll have to stop quarterback P.J. Walker from moving out of the pocket like Indiana’s Zander Diamont did last week. Although the Nittany Lions were able to take away Diamont’s weapons, the quarterback still picked up yards here and there.
For a defense striving for perfection, the Nittany Lions said they’ll be prepared to face another dual-threat quarterback.
“Any time a guy can run the ball, that’s almost like having a 12th guy on the field,” defensive line coach Sean Spencer said. “We’ve got to be conscious of it and we’ve got to do a great job of caging him up.”