During the summer, many Penn State fans flooded the hashtag #StaySilas on Twitter, trying convince running back Silas Redd to stay with the Nittany Lions after NCAA sanctions tempted him to transfer to Southern California.
When he decided to bolt to the Trojans, many expected it to be a huge hit to Penn State’s offense, as Redd led the team with 1,241 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground last season.
After Redd left, Bill Belton was named the starter, but he went down with an ankle injury in Penn State’s opener against Ohio. The following week at Virginia, Belton’s replacement, Derek Day, hurt his shoulder, which left Curtis Dukes to take the lead at tailback against Navy.
Dukes couldn’t stay healthy, either.
Coach Bill O’Brien held him out of the backfield against Temple on Saturday with a thigh injury.
This left the Lions to count on fullback Michael Zordich and fourth-string tailback Zach Zwinak to take a majority of the carries against the Owls.
And guess what? Penn State had its best game on the ground all season.
Zwinak and Zordich combined for 169 rushing yards and averaged a robust 5.1 yards per carry. The pair reeled off some of the team’s longest runs so far and played key roles in a Penn State attack that ran more frequently than it threw for the first time in 2012.
Take nothing away from these two. They performed admirably in place of their injured teammates and got the job done.
But their success, more than anything, is a textbook example of how fungible running backs can be and how success in the running game is predicated more on good blocking than anything else.
Zordich and Zwinak didn’t succeed because they’re particularly skilled. They’re the fifth and sixth options to be taking handoffs for a reason. They don’t have the athleticism of Redd or Belton, nor do they run with Dukes’ brute force.
But Penn State’s offensive front opened up big holes for them all afternoon and they executed. They found the running lanes and made the most of them.
Without those blocks, though, the guys in red and white jerseys probably would have smothered both for short gains. But with them, guys buried on the depth chart just weeks ago were able to flourish.
Tougher competition awaits Penn State in Big Ten play, which starts this week at Illinois. Things probably won’t be quite as easy for the running game.
But transfers and injuries to backs are no longer excuses for poor production on the ground. Zordich and Zwinak showed the Lions can succeed without Redd or any of Penn State’s other top options available.
It’s all about the line, and the way that unit plays the rest of the way will likely have a bigger influence on how this season plays out than the men taking the handoffs.