Zach Zwinak lowered his pads and barreled over Illinois’ Akeem Spence, popping the 305-pound defensive lineman’s helmet off in the process.
The NFL prospect was one of several Fighting Illini defenders on Saturday who fell victim to Zwinak’s punishing rushing style.
The redshirt sophomore put his physicality on display Saturday when he ran for 100 yards and scored Penn State’s first two rushing touchdowns from the running back position this season. After starting the season toward the bottom of the depth chart, Zwinak proved he can carry a large portion of the load, even with Bill Belton back from injury.
Coach Bill O’Brien said he liked the way each of his running backs played against Illinois, but Zwinak earned himself the majority of the carries.
“In this game, I felt like he was the guy that was getting the ball downhill,” O’Brien said. “He was seeing the cut and running physical.”
Contrary to the shifty Belton, Zwinak, at 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, presents a powerful running option. Belton started the game and had 65 yards on 16 carries, yet Zwinak proved to be O’Brien’s best choice against a bulky Illinois defensive line.
Zwinak averaged more than five yards per carry in the game and now leads the Lions’ running backs in rushing yards with 198 and touchdowns with two.
Quarterback Matt McGloin said Zwinak understands how to best utilize his skill-set and wear the opponent’s defense down.
“He understands that a four or five-yard gain is a good thing,” McGloin said. “He’s not trying to break everything for a 50-yard touchdown.”
Although Zwinak showed promise against Temple, offensive lineman John Urschel said the running back took his level of play to a “whole different level” against Illinois.
“He knocked some people back,” Urschel said. “I think he might have knocked some people out of the game….I didn’t know he had that in him.”
Some of Zwinak’s most physical rushing attempts on consecutive plays in the second quarter, when he rattled off three straight runs of nine yards or more to help put the offense in position for Matt Lehman’s 21-yard touchdown catch.
The running back said the feeling of running a defender over is difficult to put into words.
“It’s a good feeling, but it all comes down to the coaching and the pads,” Zwinak said. “You got to keep your pads low. You got to keep your legs moving.”
He added that he often doesn’t even realize he has physically dominated the defender. Zwinak said, for example, he had no idea he temporarily knocked Spence out of the game.
And the running back from Frederick, Md. said even if he does realize he took down an opponent, he doesn’t focus on celebrating.
“That’s how I’ve always been coached,” Zwinak said. “Everything is [about] the next play, the next play. You run the play. You give the ball to the ref. You get back in the huddle. Next play.”