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Penn State Football: Billy Ball Really Needs Belton

by on September 03, 2012 10:20 PM

At 2:41 p.m. on Saturday, Penn State’s season – at least an important chunk of its offensive future – was sidelined. If only temporarily.

That’s when tailback Bill Belton hit the ground near the middle of the Beaver Stadium turf, following a run that lost a yard, then laid down between the hash marks at the 35-yard line.

His ankle.

After a few minutes, Belton was helped to the sidelines. A bag of ice was placed on his left ankle, and then he was carted off to the locker room.

And, just like that, Penn State lost its second starting tailback in exactly a month.

Silas Redd left on Aug. 1, transferring to USC. That left Belton as the No. 1 running back. Last season, he was a wide receiver and, after Tom Bradley became the interim head coach, he played the wildcat.

Bill O’Brien moved Belton to tailback in the spring, a fortuitous and prescient move by the new head coach, if there ever was one.

Penn State hasn’t announced the extent of Belton’s injury, but on Saturday senior center Matt Stankiewitch was optimistic Belton would return in time for Saturday’s game at Virginia.

“We have faith in Billy,” said Stankiewitch, the only returning starter on the offensive line. “He’s a tough guy, not injury-prone or anything like that. He’s always tough and has always been healthy, so I assume he’ll be back on the field very soon.”

What if he isn’t?

“Well, of course that would be hard,” Stankiewitch replied.

Belton was injured with less than two minutes left in the third quarter, on the fifth play of the Nittany Lions’ drive after Ohio took the lead for the first time, 17-14. It was crunch time, and although Matt McGloin had already thrown 35 passes, O’Brien the coach told O’Brien the offensive coordinator to start pounding it out and give the ball to Belton.

Bill got the message (all three of them). In back-to-back drives to finish the third quarter, eight of the 16 calls went to Belton – including four of the last five. (The injury came on play No. 16.) Penn State was playing Billy Ball all right, as in Billy Belton. In that stretch, he ran seven times for a desultory 22 yards and caught one pass for nine more.

For three quarters, on first down Belton was the focus of Penn State’s offense. By the time Belton left the game, the Nittany Lions had run 23 first downs – 12 runs and 11 passes. Belton carried the ball for eight of those, while his backup, Derek Day, handled the other four. In fact, the game’s opening play – the first play of the O’Brien Era – was an eight-yard run by Belton, his longest of the day. That was of necessity, since Gerald Hodges’ botched kick return handcuffed the Penn State offense at its own 12.

(By game’s end, PSU ran the ball 14 times on first down and passed on 12. Nearly two-thirds of their 22 rushes came on first down. Overall, on second, third and fourth down, Penn State ran eight times and passed 36.)

Day scattered five rushes for 24 yards – paced by a 14-yarder on his first carry of the game. A first-and-10, natch. After he entered the game in Belton’s absence, Day gathered three carries for 12 yards. Then the Lions, trailing by three and then 10 points, took to the air even more vigorously.

It didn’t work.

Belton finished with 54 yards on 13 carries, with three receptions for 16 yards. Day had 36 yards on eight rushes, and caught one pass for three yards. Fullback Michael Zordich added a carry for three yards, but the ground game was really BB and DD. There is also a ZZ, but even Day doesn’t know if he’s initially the next man up.

“There are several guys. I don’t know, you’d have to ask coach (Charles) London,” said Day, a game co-captain, along with McGloin and Jordan Hill. “Any of three guys could get in there – Akeel (Lynch, a freshman), Zach (Zwinak, a sophomore) and Curtis (Dukes, a junior).

Dukes and Zwinak played, but didn’t carry the ball, although Dukes did make a solo tackle on special teams.

Penn State needs a healthy Belton if it is to offer the semblance of a ground game, or McGloin will make mincemeat of Anthony Morelli’s 2007 all-time season passing records for attempts (402) and completions (234). Single-game record-holders Wally Richardson’s (33 pass completions) and Kerry Collins (54 pass attempts) better look out, too.

A shame. O’Brien had big plans for Redd, up to 25 carries a game this season.

Last Saturday, in Redd's first game as a Trojan, he didn’t come close. Redd didn’t even start. He didn’t need to, as USC beat Hawaii 49-10.

But at 5:47 p.m. Pacific time (so Tweeted by Adam Hoge of CBS), Redd did get his first touchdown for No. 1-ranked USC. It came on a fourth-and-2 in the second quarter, according to the Southern California stat sheet, when he ran 31 yards for a score.

Overall, Redd had a mixed bag of a day, although he gained 97 yards on just 10 touches. He ran nine times for 56 yards, and fumbled once, at the tail end of a 41-yard sprint following a toss from Matt Barkley.

Redd’s other carries weren’t so spectacular, including four rushes on first-and-10s that yielded 7, 0, 1 and 1 yards. And his rushing attempt at a two-point conversion failed as well.

No matter. What’s past is prologue, a guy named Bill has been known to say.

You may be thinking that’s Bill, as in Shakespeare, as in The Tempest.

No, it’s the other Bill, as in O’Brien. But same thing.

Recent Columns:

Penn State Football: 5 Ways to Fix the Nittany Lion Defense - Sept. 2, 2012

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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