Zach Zwinak didn’t get a carry in the fourth quarter against Eastern Michigan on Saturday but that didn’t stop the junior tailback from running wild all over the field at Beaver Stadium.
As Akeel Lynch and Bill Belton ripped off big gain after big gain to and piled on points in Penn State’s 45-7 win, Zwinak’s legs were churning, carrying him down the sideline as he flailed his arms in a flurry of excitement.
“I lost my voice yelling for Bill (Belton) and Akeel (Lynch),” a hoarse Zwinak said. “I’m sure you’ll see it on film, me rolling down the sideline, following Akeel.”
After sputtering and stumbling to just 57 rushing yards in their season opener, the Nittany Lions followed with a powerful ground display against the outmatched Eagles as the running game rebounded on an afternoon where Belton and Lynch set career highs with 108 yards apiece and kicker Sam Ficken became Penn State’s all-time leader with 14 consecutive field goals.
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Zwinak scored twice and helped power Penn State to an early lead. As the game wore into its latter stages, Belton and Lynch ran the Eastern Michigan defense ragged, combining for two touchdowns and 158 yards in the fourth quarter. Belton raced 51 yards for fourth-quarter score and added a touchdown in the second quarter and Lynch added an 18-yard run to cap the scoring.
Zwinak, Belton and Lynch combined for 251 yards for an average of 6.4 yards per carry.
“It took a little while to get it going, to execute it,” O’Brien said of his team’s offense. “A little bit of a slow start there but it was nice to see them get it going.”
The trio gave Christian Hackenberg support to recover from an inaccurate start. Hackenberg set a Penn State record for most passing yards by a freshman quarterback with 311.
But the Nittany Lions had little to show for their first three drives. Eastern Michigan did, taking advantage of a Hackenberg fumble deep in Penn State territory. Hackenberg dropped back to throw but the ball flew out before he could begin his follow-through. Hunter Matt scooped up the loose ball and stepped into the end zone to give Eastern Michigan a 7-0 lead.
Penn State went to the ground and called Zwinak’s number immediately afterward.
The biggest of Penn State’s three running backs, Zwinak racked up 12 yards on four carries. He was set up by a 41-yard completion from Hackenberg to Allen Robinson and bulled his way into the end zone from two yards out.
Penn State took a 14-7 lead on its next drive when Belton added a 15-yard run to set up first-and-goal and walked into the end zone untouched from five yards out.
Lynch got into the game with a four-yard carry — his first of the season — to start Penn State’s next drive. But Penn State turned the ball over in the red zone when Hackenberg was intercepted by Mycal Swaim who returned the ball to Eastern Michigan’s 25-yard-line. The Eagles couldn’t take advantage, however and failed to cross the 50.
Belton got involved in the passing game and turned a short pass into a 21-yard gain on the first play of Penn State’s next drive. Belton added a 20-yard run and Hackenberg went 4-for-5 for 46 yards to set up Ficken’s record-setting kick of 36 yards. The kick, which broke Craig Fayak’s record of 13 consecutive field goals set in 1992, gave Penn State a 17-7 lead at halftime.
Penn State’s running backs were just getting started.
Behind an offensive line that rotated in nine different linemen throughout the game, Zwinak, Lynch and Belton chewed up 193 yards in the second half.
Penn State’s first three drives stalled but its fourth of the third quarter was extended when Zwinak carried tacklers for a 20-yard gain on third-and-24 that set up a manageable fourth down. Hackenberg threw complete to Brandon Felder to pick up the first down and Zwinak finished the drive by running untouched for a seven-yard score to push Penn State’s lead to 24-7.
That was it for Zwinak, who gave way to Lynch and Belton the rest of the way.
The Nittany Lions scored on their first three drives of the fourth quarter. Lynch help set up a 45-yard touchdown pass from Hackenberg to Robinson when he began the Nittany Lions first drive of the quarter with three carries for 27 yards.
With a 31-7 lead, Penn State leaned on Belton. The junior stepped in and gained 13 yards on two carries before ripping off the 51-yarder straight up the middle to give Penn State a 38-7 lead.
“When the defense is worn down, we always have a fresh back coming in so we can do a lot of things like that,” Belton said.
It was Lynch’s turn after an Eastern Michigan punt.
Lynch carried five times on Penn State’s next drive, jolting forward for gains of seven, five and eight yards before a 27-yard run set up a first down at the Eastern Michigan 25-yard-line. Tyler Ferguson, who replaced Hackenberg for the drive, threw a seven-yard pass to Alex Kenney to set up an 18-yard touchdown run for Lynch that capped the scoring.
Although Lynch said he felt good to have a breakout performance, he was honored with a unique distinction after the game. In the team’s locker room, former Penn State running back John Cappelletti called Lynch out. The only Penn State player to win the Heisman Trophy, Cappelletti had his jersey number retired at halftime.
Lynch just happens to wear the same number 22 and will do so for the rest of his career at Penn State. He’ll be the last player to ever wear it.
“That was really amazing,” Lynch said. “He called me out in the locker room. He said, ‘Where’s Akeel Lynch? ... I want you to carry 22 for the rest of your career and make sure you give it back when you’re done.’ I get to wear it for three more years. I’m pretty excited about that.”
Penn State players are hoping they get similar production from all three of their backs for the rest of the season.
“That was awesome,” Hackenberg said. “The running game really stepped up today and helped us tremendously offensively. I think we had over 500 yards of total offense and a lot of it was running. They did a fantastic job and their actions speak for themselves.”