Staring down a third-and-10 with a few minutes to go in regulation, Penn State needed to pick up a first down to continue bleeding the clock.
The Nittany Lions held a seven-point lead against Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday when Bill O’Brien went with — let’s call it — a gutsy play call.
Zach Zwinak lined up next to freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg in the shotgun, the signal caller fielded the snap, waited, then handed it off to his back.
A nifty draw play to a 240-pound bullying back with 10 yards to the sticks? It may not have been conventional. The delayed handoff has been a staple of fellow running back Bill Belton this year.
But it worked.
“They checked to the draw,” Wisconsin defensive end Tyler Dippel said. “We had a blitz coming off the edge, and it just kind of opened up wide open for them.”
Zwinak hit the gaping hole in front of him for a 61-yard gain, and with the seal blocking in front of him, the back pulled off his fourth consecutive game with more than 100 rushing yards.
And while Saturday was a fine way to end the 2013 campaign for Zwinak, it only further solidified yet another running back controversy for the future.
Zwinak ended his season on Saturday just 11 rushing yards shy of his second consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns, and on the year, the now-rising senior averaged a solid 4.7 yards per rush.
On paper, it’d appear that consistency was a vital cog to Zwinak’s season, but there was a period of the season where the imposing presence wasn’t more than an afterthought.
In a stretch of three games against Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois, the converted fullback garnered just 17 carries for 57 yards.
Two fumbles, one against the Wolverines and the second coming the following week in Columbus, iced Zwinak out of the running back plans for a while, and it was hard to see how he could carve his way back into the conversation, especially given the hot hand that was Belton.
But at his weekly press conference last Tuesday, O’Brien said it took a while for Zwinak to get in a groove, but called his back a “mentally tough kid”
That groove started, naturally, via a fumble by Belton against Minnesota on Nov. 9, which opened the door once again for Zwinak.
He took full advantage of the situation.
Zwinak ran for 150 yards against the Gophers, then followed up that performance with two 149-yard games against Purdue and Nebraska.
In the last four games of the season, Zwinak averaged 27.3 carries per game — a significant spike to his 12.6 carry rate the previous eight contests.
Meanwhile, Belton was held out of last weekend’s game against Nebraska with illness and injury.
But, the New Jersey native returned, healthy and ready to go, for Wisconsin tailback returned to action in Madison with just three carries on seven yards.
Looking at it from a broader perspective, the Lions will have an interesting situation at running back (once again) in 2014.
Belton ended the year with 803 yards and five touchdowns, and Zwinak had himself 12 scores on the year. Both have obviously had their successes and shortcomings, as well, so wading through the good and bad could prove to be an arduous task for O’Brien and running backs coach Charles London.
Much will likely be determined in winter workouts and, of course, spring and fall practices.
But as of now, the shroud of obscurity that surrounded the running back situation prior to the season — a choice, really, between Zwinak or Belton — still remains consistent at the end of the season, and will retain its presence until 2014.
John McGonigal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow him on Twitter at @jmcgonigal9.