Zach Zwinak carried the ball an astounding 36 times against Wisconsin, and he needed every one of them to reach the 1,000-yard milestone for the season.
Once buried on the depth chart and an afterthought at the running back position, Zwinak became Penn State’s leading rusher by season’s end. And on top of that, with 179 yards in the team’s overtime win on Saturday, he finished the campaign with exactly 1,000 yards.
“It means a lot, it’s just a number, but today was all about coming out and giving everything we had for our seniors, that’s the most important thing here,” Zwinak said. “But for the 1,000, I have to thank my line. In the games I’ve played, they’ve opened up a lot of holes and let me rush for 1,000.”
By the end of the Nittany Lions’ overtime win in their season finale, Zwinak said he had cramps in both of his legs, and noted the carries were the most he’s ever had in any game at any level of football. The redshirt sophomore also caught three passes for five yards, and found the endzone on Penn State’s first drive of the game for his seventh score of the season.
The 179 rushing yards were a career-high for Zwinak, who posted the impressive number against a Wisconsin defense that gave up a Big Ten-best 106.6 rushing yards per game entering the weekend.
“Zach’s gone in there and you rush for 180 yards against Wisconsin’s defense, you’re doing something good because Wisconsin’s got a very stout defense,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “I think they’re very good, well-coached. Was it part of the game plan? I think as we go into a game, we have a game plan and then see how the game’s going and we try to figure it out as it goes.”
Penn State’s tailback situation played out in a very unlikely way this season. Bill Belton was the opening-day starter after Silas Redd transferred to Southern California in the summer. However, Belton dealt with an early-season injury and really never got on track.
Meanwhile, Redd — who was Penn State’s leading rusher in 2011 — ran for 183 less yards than Zwinak during the regular season on a USC team that went 7-5.
Zwinak’s production was miniscule early in the season, as he ran the ball a combined three times for two yards in the team’s first three games.
But he broke out with a 94-yard performance against Temple on Sept. 22 and five games later, Zwinak started against Purdue. Zwinak ran for 134 yards against the Boilermakers, which was the start of a great month of November for the tailback in which he averaged 147.3 yards per game in four contests.
“Coach O’Brien talks to us, and it’s all about the team,” Zwinak said. “Do your role, if your role is not playing, then do something, because it’s all about the team winning. It’s easy to keep your head up, because you want to do whatever it takes to win.”
While the 1,000-yard mark is a personal accomplishment for Zwinak, it’s also something the offensive linemen are proud of. Guard John Urschel said the 232-pound converted fullback runs behind his pads well, which makes it easy to block for him.
Center Matt Stankiewitch said he’s never seen anyone take as much pride in carrying the football as Zwinak does, and sometimes the tailback has messages for the line.
“He’ll come back to the huddle and say ‘Get me to the safety, because I’ll just run him over,’ ” Stankiewitch said. “I was like ‘All right, Zach.’ He’s like ‘I’m just going to follow you, I’m just going to follow you.’ And then the next play he nails the safety, the safety is out, like laying there.”
As is the case with every Penn State player, Zwinak will be able to transfer without penalty until the beginning of next training camp. He has two years of eligibility remaining, but leaving Penn State is not something Zwinak said he is interested in doing.
“I made the decision to stay here this year, and I talked to my parents, this isn’t a one-season thing,” Zwinak said. “I’m staying. I’m here until the end.”