Last season, the Penn State passing attack got much of the attention. That’s understandable, considering it was led by Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg and Allen Robinson, the best receiver in the conference over the past two seasons. This year, the passing game should once again be the main focus. However, in 2014, the running game could be the key to success.
With Hackenberg’s success last season, opposing defenses will continue to key on stopping the talented quarterback. That, paired with a possible adjustment period due to the loss of starting wide receivers Robinson and Brandon Felder, means that it may be up to the ground game to generate offense for the Nittany Lions this year.
Last season, the Nittany Lions struggled at times to run the ball. They finished ranked seventh in the Big Ten in rushing, with an average of 174 yards a game. However, the run game did improve as the season progressed. This season, all three running backs return from 2013.
With the return of Bill Belton, Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch, the Nittany Lions have the potential to have a very potent ground game that could make up for any drop in production from the passing game.
Zwinak started eight games in 2013 and led the team with 989 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He’s been a starter for two years and brings great experience into his senior season. He’s a tough runner who’s shown the ability to be tough to stop, especially in short-yardage situations.
Though issues with fumbling forced him to the bench several times last year, Zwinak is still a proven runner who rushed for over 100 yards in each of the final four games of 2013.
Belton is also entering his third season and brings starting experience to the backfield. Belton entered 2012 as the starter after the transfer of Silas Redd. However, an injury in the first game of the season hampered him the rest of the year and opened the door for Zwinak. Belton is a talented runner with a great combination of speed and hands, making him a dangerous receiver out of the backfield.
Last year, Belton rushed for 803 yards, including a career-high 201 in the game against Illinois. His speed and playmaking ability makes him a great change of pace from Zwinak.
Lynch is the wildcard of the group. After having an impressive spring before the start of last season, there were some high expectations for him. However, he only saw time in nine games and rushed for just 358 yards and a touchdown. He did show flashes of effectiveness, rushing for 108 yards and a touchdown against Eastern Michigan, his first game as a Nittany Lion.
Despite an up-and-down year in 2013, Lynch is another talented running back who gives the Nittany Lions a backfield that could prove difficult to stop in 2014.
While the passing game and Hackenberg should once again be the focus of the Penn State offense, the running game, led by a core of experienced backs, could actually be the key to the offense’s success this season. With defenses keying on stopping Hackenberg, look for the run game to start better this season and provide solid production.
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