RB Lynch among Blue-White standouts

UNIVERSITY PARK – Bill O’Brien jokingly questioned whether any of the media were in a good mood when the first few questions in his postgame press conference were slow to come.

The Penn State football coach should have waited for Akeel Lynch to come out. He was all smiles.

“It was exciting. I’ve been waiting for this like forever,” Lynch said with a gleam. “Just training, and the offseason and the spring ball, I waited. And, when I got out here, there was no pressure. I just wanted to have fun, because I put the work in. I just wanted to let it out and show the Penn State fans.”

The redshirt freshman running back from Toronto via Buffalo left a lot of Nittany Lion faithful feeling pretty good, too, flashing a potentially devastating combination of size, strength and speed in rushing for 83 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries in his first game action at Beaver Stadium during Saturday afternoon’s Blue-White Game.

In spite of a strong day for Lynch and Lion runners in general (255 yards, 4.9 yards per carry), the defense, which was the Blue team, prevailed by a 67-47 score in conditions that ran the gamut from windy, rainy and snowy to sunny.

The search for a successor to Matt McGloin at quarterback was unresolved, as neither front-runner separated himself: Both Steven Bench and Tyler Ferguson were 9-for-15 and only 9 yards apart in passing yardage. Lynch, though, just added to an already stacked deck of Penn State tailbacks, with powerful Zach Zwinak coming off a 1,000-yard season and shifty Bill Belton reportedly having come back with something to prove after losing his starting job in the middle of last season.

“It definitely is going to make things fit together. Bill is one style, Zwinak is another, Akeel is another. It’s kind of like a one-two-three punch any way you can serve it up to a defense,” ESPN all-freshman Big Ten offensive tackle Donovan Smith said, letting out a chuckle as he considered the prospect. “It’s going to be fun seeing how things pan out in the fall.”

Lynch went for 7 yards on this first carry and appeared to carry linebacker Gary Wooten into the end zone from the 3 on this second before being ruled down at the 1. He plunged in for the first touchdown of the game on the next play.

Later in the first quarter, Lynch found a hole to the outside for a 13-yard gainer, then he put his head down and knocked a defender the last 2 yards on a 6-yard gash up the middle. Getting a good block from tight end Jesse James, Lynch broke off a 27-yard gainer around the left side with Malik Golden denying him a 54-yard TD run.

“I thought he ran hard,” O’Brien said. “I’m really, really glad he’s on our team.”

Unlike some of the players who have Blue-White Games only to never be heard from again, Lynch is probably here to stay. He came to Penn State as a blue-chip recruit who drew high marks as part of the scout team in the fall and picked up right where he left off in the spring.

“He’s been doing this in practice the whole spring. I think he had a great spring,” said defensive end Deion Barnes, the Big Ten’s reigning freshman of the year. “He’s a pretty fast running back for as big as he is. As soon as you see him, you have to grab him.”

The 6-foot, 214-pound Lynch, who says he patterns his game after the Houston Texans’ Arian Foster and wants to be a balanced back, is looking forward to adding himself to the running back derby in the fall.

“We’re got a good group of backs. I definitely have a lot to improve on,” Lynch said. “It’s going to be fun competing with each other and making each other better.”

Zwinak looked good on Saturday, too, gaining 16 yards on two carries before hurting his hand and taking the rest of the game off. Walk-on Deron Thompson led all rushers with 97 yards on 12 attempts. Dom Salomone, another walk-on, covered 44 yards on 10 runs in the late going, and Allen Robinson didn’t catch a pass but reversed his field on a well-diagnosed end-around and turned it into a 29-yard pick-up.

The defense, though, came out on top, largely on the strength of nine sacks, worth four points apiece in O’Brien’s modified scoring system.

Junior defensive end Brad Bars got to the quarterback twice early for 15 yards in negative yardage and was in the backfield several other times. Like Lynch, he wore a big grin on his face when he talked to the media.

“I think our D-Line made a lot of strides in the spring. First team, second team, third team all got better,” Bars said. “We take [this game] seriously, because, in practice, we don’t always get to go live all the time and tackle our teammates. That’s fun. We don’t get to put on the pads again until camp.”

Fellow freshmen Austin Johnson and Evan Schwan also were credited with a pair of sacks apiece, while freshman tackle Derek Dowrey stuffed a pair of running plays for losses.

Part of the success of the pass rush was because of a pretty good performance out of the secondary. The Lions graduated cornerback Stephon Morris, and safety Stephen Obeng-Agyapong was held out of the Blue-White Game with an injured shoulder, but converted receivers Malik Golden (four tackles) and Trevor Williams (two pass break-ups) stepped in and played well, and early enrollee Jordan Smith had a tackle and a pass defensed.

“The secondary and everyone on defense is light years ahead of where we were last year at this time just because of the familiarity,” defensive coordinator John Butler said. “Jordan Lucas had an outstanding spring. Trevor Williams had an outstanding spring. We’ve got more depth there than we had last year, which we hope will give us more flexibility in our systems.”

The quarterback battle was a stalemate. Returning backup Steven Bench was 9-for-15 for 99 yards and a touchdown. JUCO early enrollee Tyler Ferguson also completed 9-of-15 throws for 90 yards; he had two TD throws and an 11-yard scramble.

Rising sophomore tight end James led all receivers with five catches for 77 yards. Matt Zanellato made four receptions for 53 yards.