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The 2012 Penn State Football Season: A Cold Beginning, a Zwinning Finish

by on November 21, 2012 8:10 PM

Penn State’s 2012 football season took the field at 5:30 a.m., Friday, Feb. 17, under the cover of darkness and punctuated by sharp white breaths created by the crispness of 29-degree temperatures.

It ends on Saturday, 40 weeks and one day later, at 3:30 p.m. against Wisconsin in Beaver Stadium.

The team workout that February morning was ostensibly a conditioning exercise, led by strength coach Craig Fitzgerald – a hyper-motivator less than three weeks into the job who was wearing his now-trademark shorts and a Jack Nicholson grin.

What it was really about was team-building. Or re-building, to be more accurate. It was the first time the entire 2012 Penn State squad and coaches were together on the same field, what was to be their office and classroom and safe haven for the next 281 days. No one knew what to expect, beginning with the very basics.

“I remember thinking. ‘Will there be a workout tomorrow?’ ” recalled senior offensive tackle Mike Farrell. “We didn’t have an effective means for communications yet, so I heard through the grapevine that we had to be there in the morning. We spread the word and everyone was there.”

“5:30? That’s the earliest we ever started since I’ve been here,” said third-year running back Zach Zwinak.

The turnout, punctual and complete, is what head coach Bill O’Brien recalls about that day. “I knew first of all I was thrilled that everybody showed up on time, the whole team was there. It was 100 percent attendance and it was like that the whole winter. That was amazing,” O’Brien said on Tuesday.

“I knew we had a team that was hungry to work and get things done. I didn't know what the future held, obviously, what was going to come down in the summertime. But I knew we had a bunch of kids that cared about football and cared about learning a new way of doing things. And that's what they did.”

Penn State’s 15th head football coach in 126 seasons then rightfully credited his predecessor, Joe Paterno, for the foundation that the late coach laid with the group of players who turned out that day.

“Again, I will say this: That's a testament to the previous coaching staff, to be honest with you, and Coach Paterno, and in many ways the type of kid he recruited here,” O’Brien said. “Those kids came in and worked extremely hard in the wintertime and I think it paid dividends for our season.”

COLD CHILL OF TREPIDATION

There was a great deal of trepidation, especially from the players. For the first time in 47 years, Penn State had a new boss. And a new way of doing things. Only The O’Brien Way wasn’t totally evident back in February.

“Moving to a new staff we had less of a guess as to how things would unfold, what they saw in different people or what they’re looking for or how guys would perform individually,” Farrell said. “We really didn’t know.”

On that February morning, no footballs were allowed. But new seven assistant coaches were there, as well as holdovers Larry Johnson and Ron Vanderlinden. The players were bundled up, warmed by uncharacteristically long hair and beards, sheltered by do rags and kerchiefs, and weighed down by a sense of perplexed anticipation.

“I was just thinking this guy (Fitzgerald) is crazy,” said Matt McGloin, at the time in a three-man race with Rob Bolden and Paul Jones to be the starting quarterback. “It’s freezing cold, it’s 5:30 in the morning, we’re out there in hats and gloves and tights. Geez.”

This is what one of the first things O’Brien said that late-winter morning, addressing over 100 shivering players and 36 eavesdropping reporters just a dozen days removed from coaching Tom Brady in the Super Bowl:

“You’ll thank me for doing this.”

As it turns out, on this Thanksgiving weekend, there were many more reasons to thank O’Brien. And he in turn those players – or most of them. The Penn State contingent on Feb. 17 included upwards to 15 players who will not be in Beaver Stadium against Wisconsin. Some transferred, others were asked to leave, some stayed on campus but opted not to play football. You know the rest of the story.

NO REDD ZONE

That winter morning was full of hope.

O’Brien oversaw a series of agility drills, starting practice with a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee in hand. There were up-downs, run-and-dives over a bar and round-robin wrestling tournaments. The most spirited contest was when frontline players squared off, holding an over-sized plastic disk while trying to push a teammate outside a circle.

That was the morning's denouement. A huge pack of players moved in, just inches from the competitors, shouting their names. Offense vs. defense. Michael Zordich beat Gerald Hodges. Jordan Hill beat John Urschel. Then the workout ended and O’Brien called his players in tight, his first closing address to the group on the practice field. O’Brien reminded them about a 3 p.m. team meeting, then barked, “Great job!”

As is often customary in football at the end of a practice or game, O’Brien called on a player to “break it down,” to offer a few final words to his teammates. O’Brien gave the honor to running back Silas Redd, a 1,241-yard rusher who would be a junior in the fall. Redd happily obliged.

“It’s on us, it’s on us,” Redd, the focal point of mass huddle, shouted to his teammates. “It’s on us to carry the team.”

As we learned on July 31, the day he announced he was moving to Southern California -- 117 days ago, fairly close to the midpoint between Feb. 17 and Saturday’s game against Wisconsin – that “us” ultimately did not include Redd.

ZZ TOPS

The story doesn’t end there. For every Silas Redd who had abandoned Penn State football in 2012, there have been 10 Zach Zwinaks.

Zwinak, a rock-hard red-headed and -bearded junior, has a self-effacing and quiet countenance that is perhaps befitting a country music fan from Mount Airy, Md. (pop: 9,349). His high school career was almost mythical: His last two seasons he ran for 3,556 yards and 44 touchdowns, and recruiting analysts ranked him as the nation’s No. 2 fullback.

Yet back on that February day, Zwinak was buried on the Penn State depth chart, looking up at a host of backs, beginning with Redd. Zwinak tore an ACL as a freshman, then carried the ball only three times for seven yards last season. At 6-foot-1 and 232 pounds, it was tough to disappear. But Zwinak had. He played in only two games in 2011.

“I remember going head-to-head against him in the spring and I was able to take him down,” said Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, a 5-10, 201-pound safety. “He’s been a different guy since then. Now, one guy can’t take him down. I guess his confidence has risen, especially since he’s played such a strong role. He runs harder than I have ever seen him before. Against Nebraska he had that 50-yarder, then later in the game he broke a guy’s face mask – the guy’s whole helmet was pushed to the side.”

Zwinak has indeed turned things upside down. Even after Redd left, Zwinak was still below Bill Belton, Michael Zordich, Derek Day and maybe even Curtis Dukes on the depth chart. No longer. With the exception of Belton’s 103 yards against Iowa several contests ago, Zwinak has been O’Brien’s No. 1 back over the past eight games.

True, he has a penchant for fumbling. But in some ways it makes him even more of a Penn State Poster Boy – he’s flawed, but talented, hard-working yet a work in progress.

Zwinak has run for 94 yards or more six times in 2012 – with 134, 141 and 135 yards over his past three games. Here’s how he stacks up to Redd: Zwinak needs 120 rushing yards against Wisconsin to give him 939 for the final nine games of the season. That's important because over the final nine games of the 2011 season, Redd ran for 938 yards. A 1,000-yard season is also still within sight, even though Zwinak carried only three times for two yards in the first three games of 2012, two of them losses.

ZWINNING

I tried telling Farrell last week that Zwinak could be the 40th Penn Stater to crack the 1,000-yard barrier. I didn’t have at my fingertips that Zwinak needed to run for 179 more yards to do so.

“It’s in my notebook, I can look it up,” I said, looking nine inches up at the 6-foot-6 Farrell. I thought that as an offensive lineman, he’d think it would be cool to help Zwinak get 1,000 yards.

“Ah, that’s OK,” said Farrell. “I really don’t care about that. What I really want is the win.”

Mike Farrell was doing the talking, but the words were rooted in Feb. 17.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979. He is a senior lecturer in Penn State's College of Communications and teaches a pair of classes in the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism: “Sports Writing” and “Introduction to the Sports Industry.” He created and taught for several years the Center’s course on “Joe Paterno, Communications and The Media.” Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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