Penn State Establishes Running Game in the Nick of Time
After Christian Hackenberg broke a school record by throwing the ball 55 times in Penn State’s loss to Indiana last week, Bill O’Brien came out with a vastly different offensive game plan against Michigan.
Knowing that too much of the offensive burden was being placed on the shoulders of his true freshman quarterback, O’Brien made a concerted effort to establish the running game. In the first half, Penn State ran the ball 17 times, while attempting just 15 passes.
So the Nittany Lions were able to achieve a mostly equal run-pass balance, but there was still a major flaw with the plan of running the ball more---Penn State’s rushes weren’t going anywhere.
The Nittany Lions were being stymied by a Michigan run defense that ranked ninth in the nation coming into the game and hadn’t allowed a rushing touchdown all season. In the first half, Zach Zwinak carried the ball seven times for 25 yards, and Bill Belton totaled just 16 yards in his seven rushing attempts.
When Zwinak lost a fumble on the opening play of the third quarter, he was benched the rest of the way, in favor of Belton, who ended up recording 11 carries for 39 yards in the second half. Therefore, even though the Nittany Lions’ rushing efficiency improved somewhat in the second half, their ground game continued to be a relative non-factor in their offense.
But then, once overtime got underway, it was as if a completely different offense had taken the field.
On the first play of overtime, Belton took the handoff and scampered for seven yards. However, the series stalled when O’Brien turned to the pass, and Penn State had to settle for a field goal try.
In the second overtime, it was another Belton run on first down, netting five yards this time. Belton got the call again on second down, although he only picked up a yard, and Penn State had to send Ficken on again after an incompletion on third down. For the first time in quite a while, though, Penn State appeared to be predicating its offense on the running game.
“I tried to go a little bit more to the run in overtime because I felt confident in the runs we were calling,” O’Brien said. “What we tried to do was run it on first and second down and then have our best third down call.”
Penn State’s third overtime possession only lasted for a play due to Allen Robinson’s fumble, but in the fourth extra session, O’Brien went right back to Belton. He started the drive with runs of five, one, and three yards to bring up a fourth-and-one. Then, getting the call again with the game on the line, Belton looked initially as if he may be stopped short, but his extra effort was enough to pick up three yards and move the chains for the Nittany Lions.
“Playing running back you have to be patient, and it was a slow-developing play,” Belton said. “When the hole opened up, Pat Zerbe led me through, and I was able to get through.”
After Penn State picked up another first down on a pass interference penalty, O’Brien let his overtime workhorse finish what he started, as Belton used his speed to get to the corner and cross the goal-line, for the game-ending two-yard touchdown run.
In his postgame press conference, O’Brien was full of praise for his junior running back.
“I thought it was obviously one of his better games in his career. I can’t say enough about him. He’s a guy that’s grown up a lot on the field and off the field. I just think the world of that kid,” O’Brien said.
For Belton, he believes that getting carries consistently is what helped him succeed during overtime.
“When you’re in there and you get a chance to get the ball a lot of times, you get in a rhythm and you get a feel for the defense and you know how the line is going to block,” Belton said.
It’s not as if Belton completely dominated the overtime sessions, and there’s even a chance that if Hackenberg was throwing more, perhaps he could’ve connected on a big-strike play to end the game sooner. In addition, Belton’s 3.1-yard-per-carry average is something he’ll need to improve on in coming weeks.
However, the significance of Belton’s overtime performance against Michigan is how he demonstrated that, with the game on the line, Penn State does not need to automatically resort to a pass-first offense.
Belton showed that he looks to be plenty capable of shouldering the load on key drives, and if he contributes in a similar fashion in the future, it will take a lot of pressure of Hackenberg while helping Penn State develop the well-balanced offense that it needs to have in order to compete with the top dogs in the Big Ten.
Bradford Conners is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.