On a day when Christian Hackenberg couldn't find his groove and the Nittany Lions never really got it going through the air, Bill O'Brien may have learned whom to lean on once Big Ten play starts in two weeks.
Penn State finished its out-of-conference schedule with a dominating win over Kent State but it often times wasn't pretty. Hackenberg completed just 13-of-35 passes and at one point threw nine consecutive incomplete passes. Allen Robinson, the best receiver in the Big Ten, came in with three straight 100-yard games. He caught just three passes for 43 yards.
Despite those shortcomings, Penn State had 463 yards. Of those, 287 of them came on the ground.
They say a quarterback's best friend is a good running game and Penn State has just that, with a trio of backs capable of getting the job done. With a freshman quarterback calling the shots and conference play looming, O'Brien should call on that trio to carry the load as Hackenberg finds his way.
On the depth chart, Zach Zwinak is on the top with Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch backing him up. On game day, it's not quite that simple.
Zwinak is the workhorse. He's the one that gets the call on 3rd-and-1 or 2nd-and-goal. He can break long runs, occasionally, but he's more prone to carry a few would-be tacklers for a five-yard first down. He rushed for 1,000 yards in 2012 and is most likely to start and finish games.
Bill Belton is the shifty, more versatile back. He played quarterback in high school and started his college career at wide receiver. He's the quickest of the three and is a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Akeel Lynch may be the best true running back of the three. He has the size, speed and quickness to be an every-down back if called upon.
Wisconsin and Ohio State both have very strong running games this year, but Penn State isn't far behind. While they may not have another running back with a thousand-yard season, it's feasible that they'll have three running backs with over 700 yards each.
The coaching staff has done a good job of riding the "hot hand" when it comes to picking one for a few drives, but they haven't hesitated to switch when a change is necessary.
On Saturday, Lynch was on a streak, carrying the ball on 13 straight running plays. Then he fumbled deep in Kent State territory. He was pulled out and four plays later, Zwinak found paydirt.
This little inter-squad competition breeds success. Each running back has extra incentive to play well on every snap. To block well on pass plays. To hold onto the ball. To make the most of each run. Each player knows that every snap could be the last one they see for a while because there are other players capable of doing the job.
Hackenberg looks like he'll be an elite quarterback for the Nittany Lions, but he may not be there just yet. In the meantime, he has a couple friends he can rely on to get him through his first Big Ten season.
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