CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Bill O’Brien stayed true to his word.
After last weekend’s loss to Ohio, in which the head coach called 26 more pass plays than run plays, O’Brien vowed to call a more balanced attack against Virginia. And even though he lost starting running back Bill Belton to injury, O’Brien followed through.
With senior Derek Day starting in the backfield, Penn State ran the ball early and often — 42 times in all — on the Cavaliers' defense.
The Nittany Lions demonstrated their commitment to the ground game immediately, running the ball 10 times in their initial 17-play touchdown drive. Sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson said the offense depended on the rushing attack to set the tone.
“I think, especially early on, they moved the ball for us…,” Robinson said. “So I think they had a big impact on that, just wearing down the defense.”
In his first collegiate start at running back, Day shouldered much of the load, tallying 18 carries in total.
“It felt good,” Day said. “I felt like I ran hard, at least. I’m gonna have to go back and look at the film, see if there were any cuts I missed or anything. But I think I picked up my protections pretty well today.”
Although teammates praised Day’s ability to replace Belton, the starter averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, allowing other backs an opportunity to step up.
Redshirt junior Curtis Dukes, who was Silas Redd’s backup last season, got his first carries of the season against Virginia, totaling 30 yards on 10 carries. After being held out of spring practice to focus on his classes, Dukes is expected to play more of a role for the Lion rushing attack, especially as a goal line back.
“Dukes is looking good,” junior John Urschel said. “He's been working hard on a daily basis, trying to finish runs and run over people.”
Behind Dukes, sophomore Zach Zwinak and senior Michael Zordich also saw several carries against the Cavaliers. Their combined efforts didn't yield many results, though, as the running game averaged less than three yards per carry.
True freshman Akeel Lynch, who many expect to be a contributor at running back in the future, did not see any action against the Hoos, however.
Center Matt Stankiewitch said although the run game could have been better against Virginia, the team is still confident in those behind Belton on the depth chart. Day said the offense will need to cash in more often if the Lions are going to succeed.
“We moved the ball well again today,” Day said. “But, like I said, once we get down into the redzone and the defense gives the offense a short field to work with, you know, we gotta get the ball into the end zone.”