Penn State Football Notebook: Belton’s Decreased Role Aligns with Zwinak’s Emergence
Bill O’Brien has been pushing the running back-by-committee system pretty hard in recent weeks, saying game reps would be determined on how well each back practices and to expect multiple backs to see a steady diet of touches.
But the ebb and flow of a game isn’t something to mess with, and Zach Zwinak led the team in rushing for the third week in a row, carrying 28 times for 121 yards and a touchdown. He also caught six passes for 52 yards in Penn State’s 39-28 victory against Northwestern on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Bill Belton started the game, but he became limited after a late hit near the Northwestern sideline sent him into the trainer’s table following a 10-yard scamper to the outside.
O’Brien and running backs coach Charles London tried alleviating any concern regarding Belton, saying Zwinak had the hot hand. Belton missed most of the season with a sprained ankle and just returned last week at Illinois. London also said Belton has had some discomfort on his side, calling it a “stretch.”
“I don’t think his ankle is bothering him,” O’Brien said. “Billy went in there and did some decent things. It’s nothing against Billy Belton. He’s a very, very good football player. There’s only one ball.”
Added London: “He’s still a big part of our group, still a big part of the room and we’re gonna depend on him. In two weeks against Iowa, I’m sure he’ll be a big part of our plan as well.”
Zwinak, the big, battering back recruited as a fullback, has emerged as a rock in the backfield. Before and after Silas Redd left for Southern California, Zwinak was looked at as somewhat of an afterthought after Belton, Derek Day and Curtis Dukes came out of training camp as the top options at tailback.
“He was fourth on the depth chart, but he just kept working and kept getting better and he waited for his opportunity to come,” London said. “About three weeks ago he got an opportunity, and he really hasn’t looked back.”
Zwinak and Belton bring their own skill set to the position. Belton is the shiftier of the two and can get to the outside, which can lead to more chunk yardage plays. Zwinak, however, is closing the gap. He’s become a viable threat catching passes out of the backfield and is a better blocker than Belton, a key component in this offense that’s demanded from the position.
“A lot of it is reading the line, hitting the hole and definitely blocking,” Zwinak said, “picking up the blitzes the other team is giving us and understanding what’s happening on the field.”
Morris Shaken Up on Helmet-to-Helmet Hit
Cornerback Stephon Morris received a bit of a scare during a first-half defensive pass interference call, sustaining a helmet-to-helmet hit.
“When [training staff and teammates] came over my eyes were blurry,” Morris said. “I couldn’t really see anything."
Added Morris: “They tested me, but given the circumstances of this game, it was big game, nothing was gonna keep me out of this game. I told them I was good, and they let me go back out.”
Morris was evaluated on the sidelines after the hit, at halftime and after the game.
“I’m good,” he said. “It’s good we have a bye week as well.”
Defensive end Pete Massaro returned to action against Northwestern after missing the previous two weeks with a minor knee issue and subluxation of his right shoulder.
He said he received a Toradol injection before the game to aid his knee, and he had an ice pack wrapped around his shoulder after Saturday’s game.
Massaro said he took about 20 snaps, right near the cap the coaching staff expected him to hit Saturday.
He said the Toradol injection is a weekly treatment before every game, and he felt he could’ve played more snaps Saturday if needed.
Bye Week Practices ‘Won’t Be Bloodbaths’
O’Brien mapped out his practice schedule for the upcoming bye week. The team will practice Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and the rest of the week will be determined on how those practice days go.
“We won’t be out there long,” O’Brien said. “They won't be bloodbaths.”
Some players are planning to head home next weekend. Penn State returns to action Oct. 20 at Iowa.