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Penn State Football: Do The Nittany Lions Have A Running Back Controversy?

by on October 15, 2013 12:30 PM

It's probably safe to assume that Penn State won't be dealing with a quarterback controversy in the foreseeable future.

But the running back position has become a little less clear cut following Penn State's 43-40 victory over Michigan. Two-year starter Zach Zwinak was benched in the second half after an early fumble led to a Michigan score. Zwinak was replaced by Bill Belton, the Nittany Lions' former starter prior to an injury early in the 2012 campaign.

Belton responded to his new role with key runs in Penn State's second half comeback victory. By the end of the night Belton recorded 27 carries for 85 yards and a game winning walk-off touchdown in the fourth overtime. It wasn't so much Belton's statistical performance that helped Penn State as it was his ability to have timely runs, including a game-deciding fourth down conversion a few plays prior to the game-winning score.

"That was a heck of a run," Coach Bill O'Brien said of Belton's fourth down conversion. "I thought he had some really nice runs tonight. It's one of the better games of his career. I can't say enough about him. He's a guy that's grown up a lot on the field and off the field. I think the world of that kid."

So far this season both Zwinak and Belton have performed well. Zwinak has 92 carries for 393 well earned yards for a 4.3 yards per carry average. Belton on the other hand has carried the ball 70 times for 369 yards for a 5.3 yards per carry average.

Does Belton's performance mean he's in position to retake the starting job over a year after losing it to injury? It's hard to say. Zwinak has a strong body of work between this season and last that indicates he is capable of breaking off punishing hits. Belton is likely not built for 25+ carry nights every week but he does bring a different dynamic to the offense when he is on the field.

"I'm never going to admit (that I'm hurting) but I'm going to sleep well tonight," Belton said with a smile following the game.

Which direction O'Brien plans on going will be interesting to see moving forward. Zwinak has earned the chance to make amends for his mistake and Belton has proven to be a reliable back in the most important of situations. In all likelihood O'Brien will let both players practice hard and see who has a better two weeks in preparation for Ohio State.

In the end it seems impossible to assume that whoever doesn't start won't see the field in two weeks. So who actually starts is a bit of a formality, although it could indicate which player will receive the majority of the carries moving forward.

"Whatever the game calls for whether it's me or Zach (Zwinak) or us both rotating," Belton says. "I think we both do a good job with that. Being in there a majority of the time allows you to get in a rhythm. I enjoyed playing the game today and we just got to get back to work on Monday."

Oh and there is Akeel Lynch, the fan favorite to see the field more frequently as the season drags on. The redshirt freshman has 35 carries for 270 yards and a score so far this year. Lynch didn't see the field on Saturday but was one of the first in the locker room after the game and one of the most excited about the win.

So do the Nittany Lions have a running back controversy? Well we're talking about it, so that must be a yes. 

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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