Belton enjoys his shot in PSU backfield

Bill Belton was expected to have a breakthrough year in 2012, entering that season as Penn State’s starting running back, but instead it turned out to be a disappointing season for him personally.

At no point did Belton ever doubt that he could get the job done, but he needed an opportunity after watching his chance slip away a year ago.

“I never doubted myself, and I always have believe in myself,” Belton said. “My parents always told me to keep that about me, and I did.”

Belton’s belief in himself, along with his talent, of course, have been on display in a big way the past two weeks for for the Nittany Lions.

The junior took over as the starter at Ohio State two weeks ago and was a bright spot in an otherwise dreadful 63-14 loss as he ran for 98 yards on 22 carries. Five days ago against Illinois, Belton enjoyed a career day as he carried 36 times for 201 yards, the most since Larry Johnson went for 279 in 2002.

“Bill had a terrific day,” guard Miles Dieffenbach said. “When he has a game like that it’s not really a surprise. We have been waiting for him to have a breakout game like that.”

Belton had been waiting, too.

“It’s very rewarding,” he said of his recent success, which includes being named Big Ten co-Offensive Player of the Week following the Illinois game.

Belton leads PSU in rushing with 668 yards, and he’s tops on the team with 84 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry.

Still, Belton might or might not be the best running back on the squad, but he’s getting an opportunity to play now because the previous starter, Zach Zwinak, fumbled away the starting job.

Zwinak had a very costly fumble to open the second half against Michigan on Oct. 12, and after struggling with fumbles for two seasons, he was benched by coach Bill O’Brien.

Zwinak had 1,000 yards last season, emerging as a workhorse running back after Belton had suffered an ankle injury earlier in the year that forced him to miss three games. This season, their fortunes have been reversed.

That leads to an interesting component of sports when it comes to teammates. Zwinak and Belton are friends who, as Belton said, “bounce things off each other,” but the bottom line is only one of them can start, and in this case it took one player struggling for the other to get a chance.

“It’s a competition, but we’re still in each other’s corner,” Belton said. “It’s not like me against you or you against me.”

Oh, but it is. If Belton keeps running well, Zwinak’s role in the offense figures to remain diminished. And the only way Zwinak will get more carries is if Belton isn’t getting the job done.

Ironically, Belton had a big fumble late in the game against Illinois, turning it over at the Illini 1-yard line. He would have been the goat had PSU lost, but the Lions’ defense forced a three-and-out, they tied the game in the closing seconds of regulation and won in overtime, 24-17.

Belton carried the ball 36 times, while Zwinak had only six carries for 25 yards.

It’s doubtful Belton will get anything close to that many carries again this week at Minnesota – that kind of pounding would take a toll on any running back – so Zwinak could get a few more.

Regardless, the starting job now belongs to Belton, and it may be tough for Zwinak to get it back now that his competition has more experience at running back.

Belton came to Penn State as a receiver, but O’Brien moved him to the backfield shortly after becoming head coach last year.

“I was all for it,” Belton said. “When they see something in me they think could help the team I was all for it.”

It wasn’t, however, an easy transition. There’s a different mindset and different responsibility altogether running as a receiver compared to a running back.

“[As a receiver] I did a lot of open-field running where I could move around freely,” Belton said. “But now it’s like making the switch to running back, it wasn’t so much of that, it was more so running behind the line and learning how to approach the hole and learning where to make the right cuts and things like that.”

Belton admits his 2012 season “didn’t go as well as I thought [it] would,” but with the success he’s having this year, he noted, “everything worked out.”

It nearly didn’t work out as Belton was having academic issues during the summer, and it was unclear if he would even be on the team. But he cleared that obstacle, waited for his opportunity and now is on pace to run for 1,000 yards this season.

“He wasn’t doing well in the classroom when I got here,” O’Brien said. “He’s doing better there. It’s still a work in progress for him academically, but he works hard at it. Obviously he’s playing well on the field, so it always makes you feel good when good kids do well.”

Belton has O’Brien to thank for a lot of his success. The coach has frequently praised the running back the past two years, both as a person and from a football standpoint, and that support has helped Belton get to where he is today.

“It’s a great feeling when your head coach has confidence in you and that he cares about you,” Belton said. “Having a coach like that, I’ll go to war for [him] any day.”