Coming into this year, the $64,000 question was how Bill O’Brien and the offensive coaching staff were going to utilize his three talented, but very different running backs. Zach Zwinak, the prototypical power back coming off a 1,000 yard (exactly) season, Bill Belton, the 2012 starter that never recovered from a high ankle sprain, and Akeel Lynch, the heralded, yet unknown, redshirt freshman. After the season opening win at Syracuse, where the running game struggled to get much going against the Orange defense, the questions only grew louder. But here we are, a third of the way through the season, and somewhat under the radar, things seem to have settled in.
In the three games since Syracuse, the Lions have rushed for an average of 244 yards per game. That average could have been even higher, if not for the 4th quarter comeback against UCF that saw PSU going to the air often. Perhaps more important headed into the Big 10 portion of the schedule, is the way the roles of each back have become clearer.
Zwinak, who quietly put up 128 yards against UCF has found the end zone 8 times now, including 3 each against UCF and Kent State. While fumbling remains a concern (we all remember the key 4th quarter fumble against the Knights), Zwinak continues to be the dependable short yardage back that emerged a season ago.
Bill Belton was supposed to be the guy last season, until a high ankle sprain sent his season off the rails in the opener versus Ohio. Now at 100%, we have seen the quickness that made him the starter to open last season. Especially this last week against the Golden Flashes, Belton showed the ability to make the quick cut to hit the hole, and the vision to find an opening where there is not one. The 15 yard catch and run for PSU’s first score Saturday could be the first sign of involving the junior in the passing game as well.
Then there is the redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch. Just 4 games into his collegiate career, and we have already seen the combination of speed, power, and vision that had many (myself included) calling for the guy they call “Big Maple” last season. The scary part is, he’s only going to get better.
What really stood out to me on Saturday was how the staff was able to rotate all three players, and get good production from each. On a day where Christian Hackenberg struggled to get into any sort of rhythm, it was the running game that drove the bus. As Penn State moves into Big 10 play, and the book on Hack gets bigger, PSU will need to rely on that running game more going forward, and it would appear they have 3 different weapons to do just that.
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