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Penn State's Belton steps up in backfield

| Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, 10:39 p.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State running back Bill Belton (1) dives for a first down past Michigan safety Jarrod Wilson (22) on fourth-and-1 in the fourth overtime Oct. 12, 2013, in University Park.

As Zach Zwinak battles his inner mental demons, the mental side of playing running back finally is rounding neatly into form for Bill Belton.

Coach Bill O'Brien declared early this week Belton would be Penn State's starter at tailback for the second straight game when the Nittany Lions (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) host Illinois (3-4, 0-3) on Saturday.

Although O'Brien and Belton have been careful to maintain that the running back rotation, which also includes freshman Akeel Lynch, would remain in effect, in reality, the choice was an easy one for O'Brien and his staff.

Zwinak has contracted a case of the fumbles just as Belton has declared himself feeling completely comfortable at a position he hadn't played prior to an injury-plagued 2012 season.

“Getting playing experience and getting out there and just having more time at running back, it definitely helps with cuts and seeing certain runs and things like that,” Belton said after having 22 carries for 98 yards in last week's loss at Ohio State.

Belton was a standout prep quarterback, and he spent his freshman season listed at receiver after being ranked as one of the top “athlete” recruits in the nation. Other than a brief stint in the wildcat formation, Belton wasn't accustomed to being a runner out of the backfield.

O'Brien moved Belton to tailback soon after being hired as coach in 2012, and he made no secret of his excitement in creating ways for the game-breaking speedster to make plays.

In short, O'Brien envisioned Belton as something of a Reggie Bush Light.

An ankle injury during the 2012 season opener curtailed those plans, however, and by the end of the season, Zwinak had emerged as a 1,000-yard back.

Despite consecutive early three-touchdown games, though, Zwinak hasn't been the same punishing workhorse this season. He was averaging 15 carries per game (as opposed to 23.3 over the final six games of last season) and 4.3 yards per carry (it was 4.9 last season) when this season began slipping through his fingertips.

Zwinak was benched during each of the past two games after a fumble early in the second half led to an opponent's touchdown.

“If there's one guy making mistakes, obviously, the other two guys are going to play more,” O'Brien said. “Right now, Zach's got a little bit of a fumble issue. I do think it's a little bit mental.”

The emotional Zwinak was visibly upset on the sidelines at Ohio State, at one point sitting by himself on a bench, far from his teammates. O'Brien said he talked to Zwinak about it Monday.

“We're always trying to lift our teammates when someone's having a hard time, and we were constantly talking to him,” center Ty Howle said. “He's gone back to work this week, brought his lunchpail and practiced hard, which is something he does every week.”

Even if Zwinak regains his grip on the football, will he ever regain the role as Penn State's feature back? Even before Zwinak's fumbles early in the third quarters of the past two games, he had combined for just eight first-half carries in those contests. Zwinak had one carry through the Nittany Lions' first eight possessions against Ohio State.

That was a function, in part, of Penn State's increased reliance on Belton.

“He is a very improved player,” O'Brien said. “He's much more patient in the running game — he's seeing things better — and a good receiver out of the backfield.

“But that's a position in our program here where you really have to win it everyday. But he's done a lot of things that are really good, and that's why he's in the position he's in.”

Note: Senior guard John Urschel was selected from across all NCAA and NAIA divisions one of 16 national scholar-athletes. He is the 17th Penn State player to be honored; only two schools have had more.

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at cadamski@triblive.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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