RB battle about more than just a start

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
1:00
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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The soft-spoken Zach Zwinak didn't take the dais this week. Bill Belton didn't address reporters on teleconference calls, either.

Players deflected questions about the two running backs, but the simple conjunction on the depth chart -- "OR" -- next to their two names said a lot.

It said either tailback could start against Ohio State on Saturday night. It said that maybe, just maybe, Belton is the Nittany Lions' best option at this point. And that there's at least a drizzle of controversy in the Penn State backfield for the first time since last September.

The red-haired, 240-pound Zwinak had been the main ball-carrier in 13 of 14 games up until the Michigan contest. That could change Saturday -- and, that, really is the story.

[+] EnlargeBill Belton
Matthew O'Haren/USA TODAY SportsBill Belton scored the winning touchdown against Michigan and is listed as the co-starter on Penn State's depth chart for its game at Ohio State.
The player who starts against OSU might not see the most carries by the end of the game. So, forget who starts. But Belton is making a push to be the guy, a title Zwinak carried ever since trampling a Temple defense last season and grinding out 94 yards.

And that's what that simple "OR" really signifies.

"We'll continue to rotate guys in at that position," Bill O'Brien said Tuesday, crossing his arms and trying to downplay the change. "And both of those guys will play against Ohio State."

Belton was nothing more than an offensive afterthought last year. But the New Jersey native has burst onto the scene as the Lions' most improved player on offense -- he's averaging 5.3 yards a carry this year, a full yard more than Zwinak -- while his heavier counterpart has struggled with fumbling issues.

Those fumbles aren't so insignificant. Zwinak coughed up the ball to open the second half against Michigan and Frank Clark scooped it up for a touchdown to change the complexion of the game. Offensive guard John Urschel defended Zwinak earlier this week by saying, "To play this game you have to have a short memory, so he learns from it. ... At the end of the day, he's moved on."

But this wasn't an isolated incident. Zwinak has been a positive threat in the red zone but also a threat to turn the ball over. He's fumbled seven times since last season. That means, since he first started, he fumbles once an average of every 42 carries. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the average NCAA tailback fumbles once every 91 carries.

This isn't meant to pile it on Zwinak, who often leaves piles of dazed defenders in his wake. He's undoubtedly a talented tailback. But it's those mistakes that have given the shifty Belton enough room to wiggle his way toward the top of the depth chart.

When Zwinak turned the ball over against Michigan, Belton jogged into the huddle on the next series while the tailback affectionately known as "ZZ" didn't touch the pigskin for the rest of the four-hour, 11-minute classic. If Zwinak showed he was PSU's best tailback last season during the Temple game, then this Michigan contest was Belton's turn.

Zwinak is a good running back with a big asterisk next to his name. Belton is proving to be a good running back. Belton made a patient first down on a critical fourth-and-1 play in the fourth overtime and also ran for the game-winning TD against Michigan. He's blocked well, made a few nice catches -- and he hasn't fumbled for 126 consecutive carries. Statistically, Zwinak would've averaged three fumbles over that same workload.

O'Brien has shown he's not afraid to make changes to the depth chart. Defensive end Anthony Zettel started in place of reigning Big Ten freshman of the year Deion Barnes two weeks ago. Safety-turned-linebacker Stephen Obeng-Agyapong has started in place of Nyeem Wartman. Even walk-on long-snapper Zach Ladonis, who's been on the roster for just a few weeks, is seeing time on the field now.

The Penn State head coach made those changes because he believed they gave his team the best chance to win. And, right now, Belton might just be Penn State's best option -- even if that "OR" doesn't translate into a start.

Josh Moyer | email

Penn State/Big Ten reporter

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