In the first three games this season, Zach Zwinak had three rushing attempts for a grand total of two yards.
In the three games since, the redshirt sophomore has rushed for 315 yards and scored three touchdowns.
Despite starter Bill Belton recently returning to full-strength, Zwinak has not only maintained his success, but has actually increased his rushing totals. The Frederick, Md. native continued his surge to the forefront against Northwestern when he recorded a career-high 121 rushing yards on 28 attempts for Penn State.
Like most, Zwinak said he didn’t expect to jump onto the scene at such an alarming rate.
“No, not really, because we had other guys,” Zwinak said. “I mean, the position is stacked. There’s a lot of great players at our position. I’m just fortunate that they feel I can go in there and make the plays.”
Heading into the season, coach Bill O’Brien named Belton the starter after Silas Redd transferred to USC. Zwinak found himself in a three-way competition for the third-string spot.
Belton returned from an ankle injury to start against Illinois and recorded 16 carries, but he saw very limited action against Northwestern on Saturday.
After a 10-yard burst in the beginning of the game, Belton had just three more carries and finished with 12 total rushing yards.
O’Brien said the decision to feed Zwinak the ball so often had little to do with Belton’s health. Rather, Zwinak’s physical running style was the preferred option in the team’s 39-28 win.
“Zach has played well, but again, that’s a competition every single week,” O’Brien said. “We’ll see who’s going to play and who’s going to start and things like that.”
O’Brien said Penn State is a one-tailback team, meaning the offensive formations typically allow for one running back to be on the field at a time.
Zwinak, who has had a career-high rushing performance in each of the last three weeks, has certainly made a good case for the primary role.
The coach didn’t take Zwinak off the field much on Saturday, as he was responsible for 71.8 percent of the team’s carries. The running back helped fuel the team’s comeback, as he had 17 carries and four catches in the second half alone, including six consecutive touches on one third-quarter drive.
However, the redshirt sophomore said he knows he can lose his number of touches just as quickly as he attained them.
“The other guys can get on the field and do the same thing,” Zwinak said. “So I have to keep coming out and practicing and practicing hard. So that’s how you continue to get better each week.”
With the upcoming bye week, O’Brien has more time than usual to evaluate the position in practice.
The coach said he enjoys the competition he has in the backfield and expects Belton to continue to fight for more playing time.
“Billy’s a team player and he understands his role,” O’Brien said, “and he’ll come to practice next week and compete for his role.”
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