Penn State's Belton steps up in backfield
College Football Videos
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Rossi: Rutherford falling apart, too
- Pa. Senate’s top leader backs liquor privatization bill
- Police intercept drug courier returning to Western Pennsylvania with 316 bricks of heroin
- Steelers bring in 2 more cornerbacks for visits
- Expert: Plum district’s silence about sex allegations could erode trust
- Plum triumphs in meeting of section leaders
- Monongahela man gets 18 to 36 years for kidnapping, rape and torture of 21-year-old woman
- Authorities investigating as many as 20 dogs found dead in Hopewell
- Woman struck by foul ball in ‘horrid’ scene at Pirates game
- Hyde Park woman will stand trial on charges she had sex with a teenage boy
- Man to stand trial on molestation charges at day care