Heading into this season, the departure of Silas Redd to Southern California seemed like the dagger that could turn Penn State’s year into a total failure.
But after much of the dust cleared from last spring, Bill Belton emerged as the answer to the questions left by Redd.
Belton is quick, durable and has moves – everything you would want in a scat-style back.
After a mediocre debut against Ohio where Belton rushed for only 53 yards on 13 carries, the sophomore sat out the next three games due to injury.
In his place came Derek Day, who ran for 52 yards against Virginia, but was later knocked out with an injury.
Next came fullback Mike Zordich, carrying the ball 11 times against Navy for 50 yards.
In Penn State’s fourth game of the season against Temple, Zach Zwinak burst (more like rumbled) onto the scene.
In his first game with more than five touches, Zwinak ran all over the Owls for 94 yards.
Then against Illinois, Zwinak rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns while Belton ran for 70 yards.
After struggling against Northwestern and gaining only 12 yards, Belton ran for his first career 100-yard game against Iowa. Then something changed and Belton’s production dropped off.
Who would you start at running back this Saturday?
Against Ohio State, Belton rushed for 26 yards on 10 carries and has only touched the ball once ever since.
Earlier in November, Bill O’Brien reportedly told Belton that he has to earn his starting spot during practice.
Clearly he hasn’t done that yet, and since Belton’s limited playing time, the Nittany Lions haven’t exactly struggled in the rushing department.
Zwinak has grown into a go-to back that runs hard downfield (kind of like a bowling ball). Over the past three games Zwinak has rushed for at least 134 yards, and he's scored a touchdown in each of the last two.
In Penn State's two most recent losses against Ohio State and Nebraska, the outcomes can hardly be blamed on Belton’s lack of playing time. Still, Zwinak out-performed him in both games, even gaining 141 yards and a touchdown against the Cornhuskers.
Belton is a talented athlete; he has proven it at times this season and last year while running the wildcat.
But he hasn’t developed into a running back yet and is still more of a raw runner.
Zwinak, on the other hand, has proven that he can shoulder the load getting over 20 touches the last three games.
So, has Belton's bench-warming cost the Lions any wins?
No. If anything, Zwinak has been a main factor in Penn State's last couple of victories.