Neither Penn State nor Syracuse defenders know which opposing quarterback they’ll be lining up against Saturday.
But each side knows a little something about the others’ running backs.
For Syracuse it’ll be Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley, a powerful pair that rushed for 2,001 yards last season. Penn State will send out its own forceful runner in Zach Zwinak, who finished with 1,000 yards in 2012. Along with the offensive linemen in front of them, the running backs for each team will be counted on to help move the ball and provide support for new signal callers transitioning into new offenses.
“It’s important that you lean on your strength,” Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said. “You whisper your weaknesses and bring them along but you play to your strengths and from a personnel point of view, Jerome Smith is a kid you look at and you’re like, ‘You ready to go?’ He’s like, ‘I’m ready coach, just feed me the ball.’ Tyson Gulley, same deal, ‘Just get me the ball coach, and we’ll make it happen for you.’”
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Although the Orange posted the 29th best passing attack in the country last season, they were pretty balanced overall, and relied on their run game to grind opponents down. Syracuse ran 82 more running plays than passing plays last season and 1,028 plays overall, sustaining long drives and wearing defenses out as they pushed them down the field.
“They can run the ball,” Penn State senior defensive tackle DaQuan Jones said. “I think it was the last three games of the season last year they ran the ball at about five yards a pop, so it’s something for us to be ready to stop the run game.”
Jones scouted well.
The Orange ran Louisville, Missouri, Temple and West Virginia defenders ragged over their final four games. Syracuse averaged just over five yards per run with Smith and Gulley combining for seven touchdowns, four of them of the big-play variety. In the final four games, Smith and Gulley had touchdown runs of 33, 35, 55 and 67 yards. Gulley ran for 213 yards in the team’s bowl win against the Mountaineers.
Shafer, who was the team’s defensive coordinator the past four seasons, retooled his coaching staff. Former George McDonald took over the offense for Nathaniel Hackett, and seven other new coaches were brought in.
“You look at last year’s tape and they did a heck of a job on offense,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “George McDonald is a heck of a football coach. He’s been a coach in the National Football League. He’s been a coach most recently at the University of Miami. I have a lot of respect for George and I know he’s got a lot in store for us on Saturday and we just have to do a good job of playing with poise and adjusting on the fly.”
Cracking a Syracuse offensive line that returns three starters from last season’s squad will be no picnic.
Although Penn State’s front five are bigger, weighing in a combined 56 pounds heavier, the Orange are buoyed by a strong center as well as a left tackle that has already generated NFL interest.
In the middle is Macky MacPherson, grandson of former Syracuse head coach Dick MacPherson, who is a Rimington Award candidate as one of college football’s premier centers. On the left and tasked with protecting either Terrel Hunt or Drew Allen’s blind side is Sean Hickey. Although the junior has had an injury-plagued career to this point, he’s healthy and Syracuse’s top NFL draft prospect, according to CBSsports.com’s most recent big board.
“I think they did a good job in the summer when we weren’t around working out together, going through drills together,” Shafer said. “I love our leadership with Macky in the middle and his communication skills.”
Penn State will depend on a new quarterback, too. Either true freshman Christian Hackenberg or sophomore JUCO transfer Tyler Ferguson will lean on Zwinak as he leans on defenders. Syracuse ranked 48th in total defense last season. The Orange gave up 144 rushing yards per game to rank 43rd in run defense.
Like Gulley, Zwinak came on strong toward the end of last season. He finished his sophomore campaign with four 130-plus-yard rushing games. His bruising style — lower your head and always fall forward — was a morale booster for the Penn State defense that watched as he lunged for first down after first down late in games.
“He’s not afraid to put his shoulder pads down, his helmet down and try to run someone over,” senior linebacker Glenn Carson said. “We’ve seen Zach Zwinak be a physical guy and actually we’ve seen a facemask of another team pretty much caved in. So it just shows that he’s not afraid to lower his pads and try to run someone over.”
While the 240-pound Zwinak is a bit bigger than either Smith (6-foot, 226 pounds) or Gulley (5-foot-10, 190 pounds), his ability to carry tacklers a few yards after first contact has been a benefit, Carson said. Although Penn State has primarily used limited contact practices during training camp, Zwinak has been forceful since removing the red non-contact jersey he had to wear for the first two weeks of August.
Even while he had the red jersey on, a precaution as he healed from a Blue-White game hand injury, Zwinak was running into defenders on the practice field.
Eventually, Penn State defensive backs protested.
“It was frustrating,” Zwinak said of being expected not to hit. “That’s why I took it off because I don’t think I was playing to the rules of the red jersey.”
Zwinak is now free to plow into any defender wearing orange.
“If your defense isn’t centered on stopping the run, No. 1, you’re going to be in trouble,” O’Brien said. “It’s especially true with Syracuse because their two running backs are really, really good players. Tough guys. Strong guys. They can run. They catch the ball well. Syracuse does a real nice job with those two guys. It’s going to be a tough chore but that’s part of what we have to do.”
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