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Emerging Belton could hold key to Penn State ground game

| Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
Penn State running back Bill Belton attempts to break a tackle attempt by Ohio State cornerback Travis Howard on Oct. 27, 2012. (Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review)

Adrian Amos made a prediction, and if the sophomore cornerback is right, it will bode well for Penn State in the final four games of the season.

“I don't think you've seen the real Bill Belton yet,” Amos said of one of his good friends on the team. “He's a real playmaker, and once he gets rolling, he's really going to roll.”

A dreaded high-ankle sprain in the opener has prevented Belton from blossoming into the feature back that Penn State coach Bill O'Brien envisioned after Silas Redd transferred.

Belton still has an opportunity to emerge from what has been a running-back-by-committee approach, and for Penn State, the timing couldn't be better for the sophomore to break out.

Running the ball takes on extra importance this time of the year — especially in the Big Ten where weather can make it more difficult and risky to throw the ball — and Penn State will play the first of four November games Saturday when it visits Purdue.

Michigan State has leaned heavily on the run since Mark Dantonio took over as coach in 2007, and the Spartans are 13-3 in November during that span.

“It takes time off the clock. It allows you to be successful in tough weather situations,” Dantonio said of having a robust running game. “It makes a statement in terms of physicality.”

Penn State has made such a statement this season, but that came when redshirt sophomore Zach Zwinak had back-to-back 100-yard games in wins at Illinois and over Northwestern.

Belton responded to Zwinak's ascent by rushing for 103 yards and three touchdowns in a win at Iowa. The 5-10, 196-pound Belton finally looked healthy, showing the burst and elusiveness that made him the clear-cut starter going into training camp.

Belton, however, managed just 26 yards on 10 carries last Saturday in a 35-23 loss to Ohio State. He also may have lost his job as one of Penn State's primary kickoff returners after a botched return at the beginning of the second half left the Nittany Lions in bad field position.

Belton's injury set him back physically as well as developmentally since he played quarterback in high school and wide receiver his freshman season at Penn State.

“Any time you miss (repetitions) and other guys are getting those reps, it's hard to get back into the groove,” O'Brien said.

There has been an open competition at running back since Belton's injury provided an opening for backups such as Zwinak. But ask Belton if the situation at running back is frustrating, and he is likely to spout the company line.

“That's the way it goes,” Belton said. “We're constantly competing with one another. We can all get the job done.”

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

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