Defense, ground game spark Lions’ rout
UNIVERSITY PARK – How many hundreds of times have you heard this before: Penn State won with defense and the running game, while the passing game did very little.
That’s essentially the history of the Nittany Lion football program.
It’s not, however, what we’ve come to expect since coach Bill O’Brien took over last year.
Saturday’s 34-0 win over Kent State looked more like traditional PSU football than the efficient aerial attack we’ve seen during the brief O’Brien era.
Penn State couldn’t throw the ball effectively, but it didn’t matter because the defense dominated and the tailback trio of Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch had its way against the Golden Flashes.
Lynch ran for 123 yards, Belton 90 with a touchdown reception and Zwinak 65 with three TD runs as the Lions rolled up 287 yards on the ground.
“It was definitely a good game for all three of us,” Lynch said. “We had close to 300 yards rushing as a unit, and that’s what we want to do week in and week out because all of us have the ability to break one and all of us have the ability to go over 100 yards.”
The Lions bounced back from last week’s 34-31 loss to Central Florida and earned their first shutout since a 24-0 win over Kent State in 2010.
O’Brien, knowing people were concerned and critical after the loss to UCF, claimed afterward, “Penn State football is alive and well.”
It’s just not clicking on all cylinders yet, despite a 3-1 start.
O’Brien constantly talks about playing complementary football, but so far the Lions haven’t been able to get all facets going at the same time. That was true once again Saturday as heralded freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg struggled mightily, completing just 13-of-35 passes for 176 yards, while playing in the rain before an announced crowd of 92,371.
At no point, though, did it feel like PSU’s passing problems could actually cost them the game against Kent State (1-3).
The Lions’ defense had complete and total control of the game, something that was never the case a week ago against Central Florida.
“After you give up 34 points, you’re always going to take that to heart,” PSU defensive end Deion Barnes said. “We definitely wanted to go out there and prove ourselves and pitch a shutout like we did.”
“The defense played a hell of a football game today,” O’Brien said. “They pitched a shutout, and I think [coordinator] John Butler and [the players] did a hell of a job.”
The Lions allowed only 190 yards – 56 on the ground – and held Kent State to just nine first downs. The only hope the Golden Flashes had all day came on a solid first drive that stalled at the PSU 14 and netted no points as Anthony Melchiori pushed a 31-yard field-goal try wide right.
The defense played superb collectively, but safety Ryan Keiser stood out the most with a huge game that included an interception, a sack and three pass breakups. Keiser was a walk-on player before earning a scholarship.
“He did a heck of a job,” O’Brien said. “What a fantastic kid. He’s from Selinsgrove, Pa., a very mature guy. He’s married. He just has a great perspective on life, and he’s a great Penn State kid.”
Hackenberg’s struggles led to PSU scoring just 14 points in the first half, but the running game picked things up in the second half as the Lions turned it into the expected rout.
“I know some teams want to use one back, and sometimes we do, we try to go with the hot back,” O’Brien said. “But we think that all three of these are good football players, they’re practicing well, it’s a competitive spot.”
The rotation of Zwinak and Belton carried the load to help build a 21-0 lead. Lynch didn’t get in the game until there was 1:38 left in the third quarter, and he immediately made a big impact with a 43-yard run the first time he touched the ball.
“I was just ready for my time to go in,” said Lynch, who added he’s always in the game mentally and knows what the offense is trying to do even when he’s on the sideline.
Lynch gained his 123 yards on only 14 carries (8.8 average), and he entered the game with fresh legs at a time when Kent State’s defenders were getting worn down.
“To have multiple running backs is a big part of the game,” said Zwinak, who had three TD runs for the second straight week, “because everybody has fresh legs, everybody does a little something different.”
Zwinak is the power back and Belton the shifty back. Belton put his quick feet and cutting ability on display as he averaged 6.9 yards on his 13 carries, plus he caught a 15-yard TD pass.
Lynch has a combination of Zwinak’s power running ability and Belton’s shiftiness. He gives the offense the best of both worlds, and does so as a third-string tailback.
“He has the wiggle, and he has the speed to hit the home run,” Belton said.
All three running backs could start for many teams, but they don’t see splitting time as a negative. The competition, Belton said, “pushes us to be at our best at all times.”
“As a competitor, you want to get in,” Lynch said. “But as a team player, you want to make sure [the offense] is effective. We were winning the game at the time, those guys were hot, and I was just ready for my time to come up.”
Penn State now gets a week off before starting Big Ten play at Indiana on Oct. 5. The defense will need to play well in that one against a Hoosiers offense that’s capable of putting up a lot of points, and Penn State’s offense will have to play better than it did Saturday.
“It’s great timing,” Barnes said of the bye week. “It gives a lot of the banged-up guys a lot of time, a lot of rest, get our bodies healthy again and get our mind right for the Big Ten.”