By Mary Cunningham
Penn State’s running backs proved yesterday that the Nits have more than just QB Christian Hackenberg’s arm to depend on.
Bill Belton (photo above), Zach Zwinak and Akeel Lynch combined for 185 of Penn State’s 228 rushing yards, chipped in five of the team’s six touchdowns and the Nittany Lions hammered Massachusetts 48-7 before 99,000 Nit fans at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State’s top three backs averaged 7.7 yards per carry, and along with reserve Cole Chiappialle — who got a game-high 16 carries and ground out 35 yards with the game well in hand — put up five runs of 10 yards or more and 18 of five yards or more.
“It’s been sort of the theme for us the past couple of weeks,” quarterback Hackenberg said. “Just being able to get that going, being able to get those guys clicking and it was really good just hearing the O-line make those calls, make the correct calls and get everything going in the right direction and make a couple of those runs really spit for us today.”
And they worked well in the red zone, especially on runs to the outside.
After kicker Sam Ficken hit 42- and 40-yard field goals to put Penn State up 6-0 in the first quarter, Belton went to work. The senior took a pitch left and sidestepped his way past a UMass defender to get into the second level. He went untouched the rest of the way to complete the 24-yard score.
Penn State’s defense — which hasn’t allowed a first-quarter point in the last seven games — got the ball right back. Linebackers Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman combined to bring down Minuteman receiver Tajae Sharpe and Hull poked the ball free. Defensive tackle Austin Johnson recovered the fumble to set Penn State’s offense up at the UMass 20-yard line.
Belton gained the edge again on the next play. Tackle Donovan Smith flattened UMass safety Joey Colton and Belton, who took a direct snap, scooted by the fallen UMass player and into the end zone to put Penn State up 20-0.
The Penn State defense forced another punt and Zwinak bowled ahead for a five-yard touchdown run that capped a six-play, 64-yard drive on the Nittany Lions’ next series. Another strong sequence followed for Penn State’s defense as the Nittany Lions forced the Minutemen backward for minus-2 yards on three plays.
The Nittany Lions forced five UMass punts and foiled three fourth-down conversions on the afternoon. The Minutemen missed a 39-yard field goal in the first quarter.
Zwinak didn’t miss from one yard out. He put his shoulder down but didn’t need to run anyone over as the offensive line did it for him and Penn State pushed its lead to 34-0 at halftime.
Penn State coach James Franklin admitted he wasn’t sure when his offense was going to be able to run the ball effectively and consistently.
“I think it’s great to establish a running game and be able to make some plays with multiple backs and multiple people,” Franklin said. “We were able to be balanced. We were able to take some pressure off of (Hackenberg), which is great.”
Previously, Penn State was averaging less than 76 rushing yards per game. Penn State’s running backs pushed that average to over 113 per game with Saturday’s performance.
And they did so while a usually potent passing game struggled to find any rhythm.
Hackenberg completed just 12 of 23 passes for 179 yards and was just 4 of 11 in the first quarter.
Belton and Lynch teamed up to lead Penn State to another score early in the third quarter. Belton lined up with Lynch next to him in the Wildcat formation and handed the ball to Lynch. The sophomore galloped around the right edge of the UMass defense and across the goal line for a 15-yard score. It gave Penn State a 41-0 lead and basically signaled the end for most of the team’s starters.
Afterward, Lynch, who’s played on special teams to get more snaps behind Belton and Zwinak, said he’s learned a lot from both players ahead of him on the depth chart.
“(Bill’s) strength is making people miss. Zach’s abilities are running people over,” Lynch said. “I try to combine that with my build and my size and my speed and try to put them into one game.”
Backup quarterback D.J. Crook entered the game and led an 11-play, 41-yard drive late in the third quarter that ended when Crook threw his first touchdown pass to tight end Brent Wilkerson from 11 yards out. It was Wilkerson’s first touchdown as well.
UMass broke Penn State’s shutout when quarterback Blake Frohnapfel connected with Sharpe for a 77-yard score early in the fourth quarter.
Penn State would not score again, but still used its running game to its advantage. The Nittany Lions ran 11 running plays over its final 14 snaps and killed 10:08 off the clock to quicken the ending.
“Whenever you can run the ball and physically impose your will on the defense, that’s definitely good for the team,” Belton said. “I think running the ball was the last piece for this team. I think we’re starting to come together nicely.”