O’Brien unwise to go away from Zwinak

It’s a myth that Penn State couldn’t run the ball against Indiana, and Bill O’Brien should be kicking himself for completely abandoning one element of his offense that was working fairly well with the outcome still hanging in the balance Saturday.

Zach Zwinak ran 17 times for 72 yards, an average of 4.2 yards per carry. So why didn’t he get the ball more? And why didn’t he touch the ball at all in the final 22 minutes?

The answer is because of O’Brien’s running back rotation between Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch, which at times has helped Penn State but Saturday served as a hindrance to the offense.

Zwinak deserved at least 10-12 more carries, but instead he had none in the final seven minutes of the third quarter and none in the fourth. That falls on O’Brien, who failed to make the adjustment of sticking with his power back and foregoing the others in the rotation.

Here are some of the key elements, as they pertain to Zwinak:

n He had a 12-yard run the first time he touched the ball and a 13-yard run in the second quarter.

n He gained at least 4 yards on eight of his 17 carries. He was stuffed a few times just like all running backs, but

n In the third quarter, with PSU trailing 13-7, Zwinak had a string of four carries in nine plays on which he gained 5, 4, 9 and 4 yards to sustain a drive that resulted in a touchdown and 14-13 lead.

n Despite his success on that drive, which gave PSU its only lead of the day, Zwinak only carried the ball once more the rest of the game – for 1 yard on the next series after the Lions had fallen behind, 21-14.

When he ran for 1,000 yards last year, Zwinak did a lot of damage in the second half as he continued to churn and power forward for yardage against a tiring defense. He never got that chance Saturday because the rotation called for Belton to get his turn and because PSU self-destructed.

Two false-start penalties hurt the Lions on a drive when they were down 28-17, and they went for it on fourth-and-2 from their own 33 with 11:24 left. Rather than trying to power Zwinak there or coming up with a creative play like a shovel pass or another end-around, O’Brien called for a pass play, and struggling Christian Hackenberg threw incomplete to receiver Matt Zanellato.

Penn State’s defense gave up a quick touchdown to fall behind 35-17, and at that point it was panic time, so the Lions had to keep throwing.

But why didn’t O’Brien commit to the run – with the powerful Zwinak, not Belton or Lynch – a lot more and much earlier? Penn State threw 15 passes in the first quarter alone against a team that hadn’t stopped the run all year, so in essence, O’Brien already had made up his mind beforehand that he was going to throw the ball a lot no matter what.

Being dead set on one philosophy is not ideal for a coach. Yes, O’Brien wants to throw it a ton – and no one loves the pass-happy approach more than an offense lover like me – but he’s got to be willing to put some of that go-for-broke attitude aside from time to time and play to the situation, especially when his quarterback is struggling.

Penn State finished with an abysmal 70 yards net rushing, but that doesn’t fall on Zwinak, Belton (10 carries for 31 yards) and Lynch (three for 7). The lowly total was a result of losing 31 yards on a botched punt snap and Hackenberg losing 19 yards on the ground.

The running backs and receiver Allen Robinson (one carry for 10 yards) combined for 120 yards on 31 carries (3.9 average) – not great but at least respectable – and Zwinak in particular proved to be a challenge for the Hoosier defenders.

The running back rotation has worked well at times this season, bringing in fresh guys against tired defenses, and it will continue to work well in some situations in the future.

But this much is clear: Zwinak is Penn State’s best running back.

He’s best-equipped to grind out the tough yards in Big Ten play, so he needs to be able to get in a rhythm and get more than 17 carries a game to be most effective.

Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger