Pinstripe Bowl bittersweet for Lynch

UNIVERSITY PARK – Playing in a bowl game is important to many parts of the Penn State community.

The fans are rewarded for their commitment to the school; the seniors are rewarded for their commitment to being Nittany Lions; the coaching staff is rewarded for their commitment to the program.

But this specific matchup against Boston College will hopefully reward running back Akeel Lynch for a different kind of commitment.

“I committed to Boston College; I think I committed too early and I took my visits elsewhere,” Lynch said. “Once I came to Penn State, I knew that this was the right choice and the right fit for me.”

Saturday’s game against the Eagles in the Pinstripe Bowl will be the first time the redshirt sophomore will face the team he originally intended to suit up for.

However, Lynch doesn’t seem too concerned that this unique matchup will distract, and neither will the fact that he’s playing in Yankee Stadium.

“I never thought about playing football in a baseball stadium. I think they will have football lines, so I think it will be pretty normal,” Lynch said with a smile.

In fact, the most meaningful part about this final game of 2014 is that it will be the last time Lynch will play with his good friend Bill Belton in a Penn State uniform.

The two running backs have fed off each other on the field all season. With Zach Zwinak injured in the opening kickoff of the Ohio State game, Lynch found he had a more prominent role.

Then Lynch finished the season with the most rushing yards, netting 603 for the year.

“I just think whenever your chance comes you’ve got to be ready for it,” Lynch said. “I just thought to keep preparing yourself because you only get so many opportunities to be a starter, and I didn’t want to miss it. Right now we’re still rotating so whenever my name is called, I just have to be ready.”

Belton wasn’t terribly far behind him with 518 yards this season. With 10 touchdowns between the two of them this season, their coveted handshake in the end zone will certainly be missed after Saturday’s game.

Although Belton isn’t known for being very vocal in the eyes of the fans or media, both he and Lynch know that his presence within the program was vital to both of their success.

“Guys have their own way of leading and I have mine. I’m not a guy that’s going to be out there in the front,” Belton said. “I pride myself on doing things in meeting rooms and giving people help on the field – a lot of stuff that people don’t see.”

And it will be those intangibles off the field that Lynch will miss most. Between his leadership and friendship, Belton’s impact on the younger running back will not be forgotten.

“Just his insight to the game. Hopefully I can take what taught me and pass it on to other guys. I’ll miss his presence in meeting rooms,” Lynch said.

Although Lynch will miss his mentor, Belton knows that the Canadian will do just fine on his own.

What the future has in store for Belton is unknown, but he is hopeful that going professional is an option for him. As a former receiver, there are many options for Belton as he considers what to do after Saturday.

“I don’t think it’s over for me,” Belton said. “I think I need to be in the right situation when I’m used in the proper way.”

But, there are some reservations from the senior as he suits up for his final game. Penn State’s offense has received a lot of criticism this season under offensive coordinator John Donovan.

With one of the top defenses in the Big Ten, as well as in the country, it seemed that the work of defensive coordinator Bob Shoop was garnering all the praise during the season and the criticism was dumped on Donovan.

Belton is confident in the talents of his fellow teammates, but doesn’t have a solution as to why they aren’t performing to the high expectations given to them. The running back was notably frustrated when discussing the offensive struggles with his new coordinator.

“I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know,” Belton said with an unhappy tone. “We’ve got guys all over the field that can make plays. We’ve got a big, 6-8 tight end [in Jesse James], Kyle Carter, good running back group, young receivers that can play well, so I don’t know.

“It’s not our job to suggest plays. We just run the plays that are given to us.”

While Belton alluded toward a problematic system, Lynch insists that working with Donovan is not a struggle for him, as he finds his coach to be funny but knows when to “get down to business.”

“We know what we’re capable of [as an offense] and that’s the most frustrating part,” Lynch said.

Regardless of how the rest of the offense turns out, Belton knows Lynch will continue on to be a standout. Donovan’s schemes seemed to fit the run game well as the season concluded and Belton doesn’t see that changing in the future.

“He always came out and worked hard. Akeel is a guy that’s talented,” Belton said. “He’s been learning from day one and it’s shown.”