Michael Zordich ran for 50 yards Saturday against Navy, achieving in one game what had previously taken him 20 games to do.
Before Penn State beat Navy, 34-7, Zordich’s rushing stats all the way back to Nov. 6, 2010 totaled exactly 50 yards for the fullback. For the most part, he had no more than a carry or two per game.
But with tailbacks Bill Belton and Derek Day sidelined with injuries, Zordich has been lobbying hard for O’Brien to involve him more directly in the running game.
“He’s always reminded me that, ‘I used to run the ball in high school, coach,’” O’Brien said. “It’s like being Ferris Bueller’s teacher. It’s over and over.”
Zordich didn’t just run the ball in high school — he ran it a lot. He flirted with 1,000 rushing yards in both his junior and senior seasons at Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio.
So O’Brien obliged him, and Zordich dove into the playbook, relearning many of Penn State’s plays from an entirely new position. He also took reps all week in his new role at practice.
“As a player, you just want to get on the field as soon as possible,” Zordich said. “I was just reminding [O’Brien] I could do some things, and thankfully he gave me the opportunity to do it.”
Zordich split time with Curtis Dukes in his first collegiate game as a true tailback. His 50 yards and 11 carries are both career-highs. He credited the offensive line for opening holes for the backfield.
“They were knocking guys off the ball, and we were able to stay low and keep the legs going and have a little fun out there,” Zordich said.
To compensate for the loss of Zordich as a lead blocker, O’Brien threw defensive tackle Jordan Hill into the mix on offense for a few plays in the first quarter. Zordich said having No. 47 take the three-point stance in the backfield is “a sight you want to see.”
Hill and Zordich weren’t the only ones breaking into new positions on Saturday. Paul Jones had a reception at tight end, and he was involved in blocking on a few plays.
Jones said he was caught off guard by Zordich’s versatility.
“Dukes is a physical runner. I knew that,” Jones said. “But Zordich shocked me a little bit. Not saying that I didn’t think he was good enough to [play tailback], but usually when he gets the ball, it’s to get one or two yards for the first down. But seeing him run in the open field, it seemed like it was natural...”
O’Brien said Belton and Day remain day-to-day, but he would likely know more about their health by Tuesday. Belton is coming off an ankle injury he sustained against Ohio, and Day separated his shoulder at Virginia — an injury O’Brien described as “very painful.”
After not using Akeel Lynch at running back for the first three games despite the injuries, it appears as though O’Brien will redshirt the freshman this season.
Zordich said the team is hoping Belton and Day return soon, but he wouldn’t mind getting some more carries in the future.
“It’s coach O’Brien’s decision,” Zordich said regarding his ball-carrying duties in the future. “He’s the coach. Whatever happens, happens. Obviously, I’m hoping we can continue to do that. But it’s his call.”