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PSU's Zwinak pushes piles and for playing time

| Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Tribune-Review
Penn State running back Zach Zwinak gains yardage against the Temple Owls during the fourth quarter at Beaver Stadium earlier this season. the sophomore has emerged to become the Nittany Lions' leading rusher this season. Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review

Penn State did not try to conceal its disgust with Illinois and its well-documented recruiting tactics after the NCAA sanctioned the Nittany Lions' football program.

But even some of Penn State's defensive players may have felt sorry for their counterparts last weekend as Zach Zwinak battered the Illini in a 35-7 win.

They also have been on the receiving end of the kind of body blows Zwinak delivered en route to his first 100-yard rushing game.

“You see him on Saturdays, and that's how he practices all week,” said Rick Conner, who coached Zwinak in high school.

Zwinak's punishing style — not to mention his recent success — makes it easy to forget that he entered the season a bit of an afterthought. His emergence has caused coach Bill O'Brien to scrap the idea of using a feature back, and Zwinak is expected to share carries with starter Bill Belton on Saturday when the Nittany Lions (3-2) try to hand No. 24 Northwestern (5-0) its first loss.

Belton's injury — the sophomore sprained an ankle in the season opener — provided an opening. And Zwinak blasted through it, becoming an unlikely leading rusher (196 yards on 40 carries) through Penn State's first five games.

“One guy's not going to bring him down,” Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin said. “He's going to take a hit. He's going to keep pushing forward. He understands that four and five yards is a good play. He doesn't try to break everything for a touchdown.”

There isn't much subtlety to Zwinak's style, nor should there be, considering the redshirt sophomore is 6-foot-1, 238 pounds.

Zwinak's size and speed made him a highly coveted recruit out of Linganore High School in Frederick, Md., and he picked Penn State over Virginia Tech and Maryland.

Zwinak tore his ACL in practice as a freshman and, after learning about the severity of the injury, was devastated.

“I thought I was never going to be the same again,” he said. “It was a scary time.”

It helped when he heard that some of his teammates, such as outside linebacker Michael Mauti, had sustained the same injury and returned from it. Zwinak applied patience and perseverance to his rehabilitation and is just now starting to enjoy the payoff.

Zwinak provides a complement to the shifty Belton, and he is the kind of back who can grind out a clock. He did that at Illinois, rushing for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.

He could play a significant role against Northwestern as Penn State will try to control the clock and keep the Wildcats' offense off the field.

“He's done a nice job the last two weeks,” O'Brien said, “but we've got seven more to go, so he's got to keep it going.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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