RB’s Run Wild as Penn State Shuts Out Kent State

Story posted September 21, 2013 in CommRadio, Sports by Eric DeBerardinis

While downpours forced fans to run for cover on Saturday, the rain provided perfect conditions for those in Penn State’s backfield to run wild. Behind 287 rushing yards, the Nittany Lions (3-1) attack combined with a stellar defensive effort to propel the team to a 34-0 victory over Kent State (1-3).

“Days like today are great. I grew up loving the mud and the rain,” said running back Zach Zwinak. “This is some of my favorite weather to play in, despite the rain.”

The hard-nosed Zwinak carried 15 times for 66 yards and added three touchdowns, bumping his season total to eight.

However, the outcome wasn’t always such a certainty. Sloppy conditions were matched by sloppy play at the game’s onset.

A kick-catch interference call against Penn State resulted in terrific field position for the Golden Flashes’ first drive. Starting at the Nittany Lions’ 36-yard line, Kent State advanced 22 yards, before settling for a 31-yard field goal attempt from the steady leg of Anthony Melchiori. The sophomore chipped the kick wide right, much to the approval of an unwelcoming student section.

Penn State’s ensuing drive ended similarly to its first. After Bill Belton’s first series drop on third-down, Kyle Carter failed to reel in a third-down pass from quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The mistake lowered the Nittany Lions conversion rate to four of 36 on the 2013 season.

After a defensive stop with the first quarter winding down, Penn State found itself inside the red zone for the first time. On the ensuing play, Hackenberg nearly let the opportunity, quite literally, slip away. On second down, the freshman cocked back to throw, but the wet ball didn’t move forward along with his arm. Left tackle Donovan Smith fell on the ball allowing for another chance to capitalize.

On the next play, with Bill Belton lined up outside, Hackenberg quickly found the junior running back, who sprinted into the end zone for the game’s first score. Equally impressive as the play, was the fact that it came on third-down.

At his weekly press conference on Tuesday, head coach Bill O’Brien exclaimed that he was confident the team would improve on third-downs. On Saturday, his offense was much more efficient, converting on seven of 18 opportunities.

In the second quarter, and again on third-down, Bill Belton, this time took the handoff from Hackenberg and scampered 28 yards deep into Kent State territory. Penn State was further aided by a facemask call against the Golden Flashes. After moving the ball to the one-yard line, bruising tailback Zach Zwinak, powered across the goal line to extend the Nittany Lion’s lead.

“We really focused on third-down in practice, because it’s something we thought we could improve on,” said center Miles Dieffenbach.

He added that the improvement comes from practicing all situations.

With concerns about slow starts to games entering Saturday’s affair, Penn State took a 14-0 lead into the half.

Early in the third quarter, Kent State quarterback, Colin Reardon was benched in favor of David Fisher. However, the redshirt freshman reentered after just one series from Fisher.

After getting thrashed by Central Florida a week ago, Penn State more than made up for their performance against the Golden Flashes. They allowed less than 200 total yards, including just 56 rushing and 134 through the air. Safety Ryan Keiser picked off Reardon on the play immediately after Hackenberg's lone interception of the day.

The “D” submitted their first shutout in three seasons. The last such occurrence; when Penn State blanked Kent State 24-0 in 2010.

“I think the defense played a hell of a football game,” said O’Brien. “They pitched a shutout and I think John Butler and that crowd of coaches over there did a hell of a job.”

Even with linebacker Mike Hull in sweats on the sideline, the Nittany Lions shut down Kent State on every level. Converted member of the secondary, Stephen Obeng-Agyapong, started in Hull’s place.

“It was a really important week for us,” said linebacker Glenn Carson. “Coming off a loss, everybody was looking to see how we would respond, including the team and the coaches, and we responded well.”

The defense kept the opponent’s score at zero, while the running game kept adding points to the home side of the scoreboard.

In the third quarter, a bruising drive consisting of eight runs on nine plays, concluded with a Zwinak leaping touchdown from the one-yard line.

Akeel Lynch had only one first half carry, but that didn’t stop the redshirt freshman from accumulating a career-high in rushing. Lynch carried 14 times for 123 yards, including a 43-yarder, which he wishes he could have taken further.

“I definitely should have scored,” said the Canada native. “I’m going to hear it in the media room, ‘you’re the fastest guy on the team’ but you didn’t score.”

In total, Penn State ran the ball 56 times to the tune of 287 yards. In addition to Zwinak and Lynch, Belton added 93 yards on 13 caries, with the trio proving unstoppable against a decent Kent State run defense.

“I believe in using a lot of backs, I really do,” said O’Brien. “We think that all three of these guys are good football players. They’re practicing well, it’s a competitive spot, and we think all three deserve to play.”

Smith, who recovered Hackenberg’s fumble, also paved the way all afternoon for the newly deemed “three-headed monster” of running backs.

“We just got a good push at the line of scrimmage,” said Smith. “We got a good push and left it to the backs.”

In previous weeks, attention was squarely placed on the throwing arm of Hackenberg. The dominance from the backfield alleviated some of that pressure, and saved the freshman from his poorest performance yet.

Hackenberg completed just 13 of 35 passes for one touchdown and one interception.

“I think he’s probably a little frustrated tonight,” said O’Brien. “But that’s okay, that’s the mark of a fantastic player, and that’s what he is.”

It wasn’t just the running backs and defense that were impressive. Kicker, Sam Ficken, narrowly missed a 57-yard attempt last week, but late against Kent State, he drilled a career-long 54-yarder and continued to showcase his improvement.

Hackenberg remains with minus rushing yards for the season, but added some positive yards in another category. In the first quarter, the ‘dual-threat’ pooch-punted a 43-yarder down to the Kent State seven, his second punt of the season.

Saturday’s rain turned an expected “Blueout” (in support of child abuse awareness), into a multi-colored “Poncho-Out”. An “announced” attendance of 92,371 fans, mostly covered up to watch the Lions’ victory in the pouring rain. Those who battled the harsh conditions were pleasantly surprised to hear “Sweet Caroline”, which had been noticeably absent in Beaver Stadium since 2011.

Penn State has next week off, before entering their conference schedule, with an October 5th matchup against the Hoosiers in Indiana.

Eric DeBerardinis is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email ejd5136@gmail.com.