Penn State Football: Running Back Corps Happy For Collective Success
True freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg got all the headlines this past weekend with his record-breaking performance. You might have missed another exceptional performance that went largely unnoticed -- make that two dazzling performances, courtesy of Penn State's running back corps.
Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch both rushed for over 100 yards on Saturday. Believe it or not, that's only the 10th time in the past 23 years that Penn State has had two players post 100+ yard outings in the same game.
Lynch was happy with his performance, but even happier to just -- finally -- have a chance to play. Fittingly, Lynch's first game in action and his first breaking the 100 yard mark was the same day John Cappelletti's number was retired. Cappelletti broke the 100 yard threshold 13 times during his career. Lynch wears Cappelletti's No 22. and will wear it for the rest of his Penn State career.
After a redshirt season on Penn State's "Dirty Show" -a Bill O'Brien term for practice squad- Lynch had paid his dues and was ready to make the most of his chances. In week one his number was never called, but against an Eastern Michigan squad that struggles against the run -- the team dead last in rushing yards allowed last year -- it was the perfect time to get Lynch's feet wet.
"It was good to get him in there," O'Brien said. "He is a fantastic kid and he is a guy who has worked extremely hard to improve his game. It was great for us as a staff to watch him get in there with a big smile on his face. I thought he ran hard."
"This is what you've been playing for, this is what you've been training for, for 10 months for," Lynch said, still grinning from ear to ear. "To be able to go out and play football in front of all these fans."
All game Lynch showed why coaches think that he can be a crucial part of the future of Penn State's offense. Ducking and diving, sliding through tacklers, Lynch was in many ways a reminder of former-Nittany Lion Silas Redd who ran with a similar combination of speed and power. Even with a strong game, Lynch didn't hit pay-dirt until late in the fourth quarter when he finally cashed in an 18-yard score.
"I gotta score," Lynch said laughing, because his touchdown run included a few stumbles before he finally crossed the line. "Zach and Bill both got two (touchdowns) and I probably won't hear the end of it if I don't score at least one too. So I just had to score and I'm glad I did."
For all three backs the running game is truly a group effort. Each back brings something different to the field and each brings something different off of it.
Zwinak is a battering ram on the field, but a quiet leader who only shows his more humorous nature away from the bright lights. Belton is more shifty and quick on the field but is one of the more introspective players away from the gridiron. And Lynch who is a mixture of both, power and speed is a bubbling pot of smiles off the field.
Despite their different personalities, all three thrive on seeing each other succeed. There is no hidden agenda, no division between the three, just a rotating mass of speed, power, quickness, and drive that has -- at least for one week -- taken advantage of the defense.
"I look at him like an older brother," Lynch said of Belton. "He looks out for me a lot and I've seen all the work and effort he put in this offseason and to see him go out there and play well, I know he's going to have a great season and I'm glad."
For Zwinak, Penn State's returning 1000 yard alpha male running back, his seven carry, 43 yard day was effective but not as heavy as his load usually was last season. That doesn't matter to him though, and in many ways sharing the responsibilities means fresher legs for everyone down the road. More specifically it means fresher legs for Zwinak who often looked beaten and bruised after games, his 203 carries last season taking their collective toll.
"Having three running backs, it's always having fresh legs out there and keeps the offense moving," Zwinak said. "The defense never sees the same kind of back and it keeps them guessing too. "
"It's just exciting," Zwinak said, motioning in the air with emphasis. "We're all doing good as a corps and we're all making plays, just as a running back group it's just exciting. I know that after last year Bill (Belton) wasn't happy about where he was and how he played and I was real happy for him today."
As for Lynch and his fears of not making it into the endzone on Saturday?
"He may have heard about it a little bit," Belton said cracking a small smile.
A new record book achievement to unlock? Penn State has only had three running backs break the 100 yard mark in the same game twice. That hasn't happened since 1969.