This time, victory doesn’t slip through Lions’ hands

UNIVERSITY PARK – Bill O’Brien puts a high priority on ball security and has often described its importance as, “You’re carrying the hopes and dreams of the football team.”

No one thought the visiting/1-9 Purdue Boilermakers could derail what’s left of those dreams for this season, and they didn’t, but Penn State’s 45-21 victory Saturday again underscored a problem that has plagued the Nittany Lions.

And that’s fumbling.

They do it way too much.

The Lions entered the game having lost a Big Ten-high 11 fumbles – which ranks them as the 110th worst team in the country at protecting the rock – and they added another to their total when starting tailback Bill Belton coughed one up early in the second quarter.

It was Belton’s third lost fumble in three weeks and cued the re-emergence of Zach Zwinak, who entered the season as the starter but lost it thanks to his three fumbles.

He appeared to add a fourth Saturday that the Lions recovered, but it wasn’t listed on the official statistics, even though the referee saw fit to signal that the Lions had retained possession.

We’ll leave that for Penn State to sort out whether it’s now 17 or 18 team fumbles this year.

O’Brien knows for sure it’s too many.

He was all but doubled over, hands on knees, when Belton did it again.

“It’s frustrating because they’re good players, [and] they’re great kids,” O’Brien said. “They’re better kids than they are players. They feel bad about it. I feel bad about it.”

The issue was quickly raised in an otherwise feel-good locker room afterward.

“I told them the reason I get frustrated is I have high expectations for the players on this team,” O’Brien said. “We’ll continue to work with it. You don’t want to overemphasize it because then you have got the guy thinking about it all the time.

“But we’ve got to stop putting the ball on the ground, bottom line.”

After Zwinak’s fumble turned a 21-10 lead against Michigan into a game the Lions had to fight like dogs to win in quadruple overtime, he only saw nine carries for the next 10-plus quarters before getting a chance to re-establish himself last week at Minnesota – after Belton fumbled on the game’s first play.

Zwinak didn’t want to address the topic Saturday, and Belton was not available to the media, but the Maryland redhead seemed pleased for a reprieve even if it came partially out of necessity.

“I just come out to work every day and take one day at a time,” he said.

Zwinak has been wearing gloves as a possible remedy, and his left hand/wrist was wrapped in ice Saturday.

“Just a bump, bruises,” he said, downplaying an injury. “It was a physical game, and the [Purdue] defense came out, and they had a lot of hits.”

Zwinak’s 149 yards on 26 carries gave him two straight strong games; he had 152 on 26 tries last week.

His teammates did their part in keeping his spirits up after he lost his starting job, which he solidified last year by rushed for 1000 yards despite not becoming the starter until the fifth game of the season.

“I just tell them to keep his head up,” senior leader and guard John Urschel said of when a teammate makes a key mistake. “There’s a balance you have to have between learning from a bad play you’ve had earlier in the game but at the same time not dwelling on it. You can’t let bad plays stay in your head because then you’ll be off your game.

“I just try to encourage them and tell them to shake it off.”

One the reasons for Zwinak’s fumbles – he’s got nine dating back to last year – may be his extra effort as he’s always churning for extra yardage and almost never is downed by initial contact.

“Zach’s a really hard worker,” said junior linebacker and defensive leader Mike Hull. “He comes to practice every day with good intensity, and sometimes those fumbles happen when you’re fighting for extra yards. Everyone’s always just there to say, ‘Keep your head up.’

“I feel like you can’t get too high or too low. He’s done a great job after what happened and he’s come strong.”

To finish better than 6-6, you would think the Lions can ill afford turnovers, especially fumbles, in the remaining two tests against Nebraska on Senior Day and at Wisconsin in the season finale.

Then again, the 1965 team, Rip Engle’s last, fumbled a school-record 40 times and somehow finished 5-5.

And the school record for fewest fumbles? Eight by the 2001 team that finished 5-6.

Go figure.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or