Running Game Healthy Entering Big Ten Play

Four games for Penn State. Four different leading rushers.

Don’t expect the streak to continue this Saturday in Illinois, however. For that to happen, Curtis Dukes would have to lead the team in rushing yards against the Fighting Illini. It is possible but less likely, with Derek Day and Bill Belton returning from injuries that kept them out of the last two and three games respectively.

The interesting thing about this Nittany Lion running game is that after a slow start, they actually got better before they got healthy. Belton, the anointed starter following the transfer of Silas Redd, shouldered the main load against Ohio before an ankle injury took him out of action. Day was the next man up and received the most carries against Virginia before a separated shoulder put him on the sidelines.

Paging Michael Zordich. The senior fullback who never carried the ball more than three times in a contest had 11 carries against Navy. He had some assistance in the form of Dukes but against Temple, he would do it all by himself until a knee injury brought him to the sidelines at the end of the third quarter. Enter Zack Zwinak who finished the game with 94 yards on 18 carries.

None of these aforementioned players have a rushing touchdown. The only two on the team belong to quarterback Matt McGloin. The Nittany Lions also rank last in the Big Ten when it comes to total rushing output. They are 76 yards behind the next team, but those numbers may not tell the whole story here.

The Nittany Lions have been running the ball more often since the loss to Ohio that only featured twenty-two attempts, and they have done it much more effectively the last two weeks averaging 4.29 yards per carry compared to 3.43 in the first two games.

The challenge now becomes splitting carries between multiple players — potentially up to 5. Bill O’Brien knows that is a rather difficult task, and a few guys could be left standing on the sidelines. “It’s tough to use all five. Definitely tough to use all five. It depends how they practice during the week,” said O’Brien.

So, who is currently running with the first team at practice? That answer does not appear to be clear either. “We alternate who starts each period in practice. It’s definitely a committee type approach,” added O’Brien.

Running back by committee did not exist a few weeks ago. It was Belton and then everyone else until each individual player became slightly more important after Belton went down. Still, O’Brien seems to think this is a good problem to have, and maybe he should. His opponent just surrendered 119 yards and two touchdowns to Louisiana Tech at home. “All of the kids bring a different skill set to the table. Some are first and second down guys. Some are third down guys. Some are a little bit quicker. Some guys are bigger. Some are faster. Some guys catch the ball better,” explained O’Brien.

The number of touches for guys like Belton, Day, and Dukes is anyone’s guess. Then there’s also Zordich lurking in the background, lobbying for more carries, and Zwinak if needed as he was against Temple.

The statistic that might best sum up the Nittany Lions running game is Glenn Carson having the longest rushing play from scrimmage so far. The linebacker took a fake punt against Virginia for nineteen yards, and no one has surpassed it yet.

The details are murky. What is known is that all backfield options are finally healthy. Five guys are ready to run as the Nittany Lions try to go on one.

Notes from Bill O’Brien’s press conference: 

  • It is not just the running backs getting healthy but most of the team. Sean Stanley (back) and Donovan Smith (ankle) should return to action this Saturday.
  • Nyeem Wartman remains out with an injury, and Pete Massaro (shoulder) will “probably not play.”
  • Much has been made about the matchup against Illinois stemming from Tim Beckman’s recruiting tactics following the sanctions. The first year Illini head coach sent his assistant coaches to State College in late July and does not regret it. When it happened, it made Michael Mauti mad, really mad, but O’Brien elected to take the high road when pressed about it saying “I believe our players are committed this football program. As far as the recruitment of our players, that’s something I’m going to keep to myself.”
  • O’Brien called starting wide receiver Brandon Moseby-Felder one of the most improved players on the team. The junior rose up the depth chart and is seeing time opposite Allen Robinson.
  • It sounds like Jesse Della Valle is the primary punt returner following a strong performance last Saturday.

Quote of the Day:

  • O’Brien on the status of Michael Zordich who did not practice Monday: “He’s a tough kid. Youngstown, Ohio. Tough dad. I’m sure he’s on the phone with his dad, and his dad is telling him to get his butt back out there.”

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About the Author

Drew Balis

Drew is a senior marketing major. This fall, he will be covering Penn State Football for Onward State. He is a huge Philadelphia sports fan and loves THON and Domonic Brown.

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