Penn State Grinds out a Victory

Nittany Lion running game takes over late as PSU whips Kent State in a marathon affair at Beaver Stadium.

No, Penn State-Kent State was not a game for the ages. A game that aged everyone in attendance, maybe. But not one for the time capsule.

This was not unexpected, of course. But a combination of rainy conditions and a game plan apparently designed to give freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg some work -- though coach Bill O'Brien insisted otherwise -- made for an endless, ugly afternoon.

Eventually O'Brien, who for a while seemed to be channeling his inner Andy Reid, got around to calling some running plays. Only then did the Lions steamroll the overmatched Golden Flashes and sew up a 34-0 victory.

One running back, Bill Belton, had 105 all-purpose yards, including a 15-yard touchdown reception. Another, Zach Zwinak, ran for three short TDs. A third, redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch, rushed for 123 yards, a high for his four-game-old college career. All but six of those came in the last 16:38.

In all the Lions (3-1) rushed 53 times for 287 yards, in a game that lasted over three hours.

It only seemed like three days.

“You guys need to ask me some defensive questions,” O'Brien instructed the dazed media corps midway through his postgame rehash. “They're all offensive questions right now, and you guys were all over them last week (after a 34-31 loss to Central Florida). And they just pitched a shutout. Can we get some defensive questions? No?”

The defense, led by middle linebacker Glenn Carson, did in fact limit the Flashes to 190 yards. But really, it didn't look like Kent State, which fell to 1-3 and was without star running back/receiver Dri Archer (ankle sprain), was capable of doing much of anything.

O'Brien had his story, though, and he was sticking to it.

“I thought the defense played a helluva football game today,” he said. “They pitched a shutout, and I think (coordinator) John Butler and the coaches over there and that crowd of players did a helluva … job.”

There was a pause in there, where O'Brien started to say a word beginning with “F.” Someone later reminded him it sounded like his on-field television interview after the season-ending victory over Wisconsin last year, when he called his guys a bunch of “fighters.” Or something like that.

“We do,” he said. “We have a bunch of fighters. … It's like my mom. She doesn't believe I said 'fighters.' Do I look like the type of guy who swears?”

That elicited chuckles, and might have been the most noteworthy thing to occur on this day, unless you count the return of Neil Diamond's “Sweet Caroline” to the stadium's audio mix. Dropped in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal because some of the lyrics were judged to be questionable, it was played in the first half to great fanfare.

Yeah, that passed for a big deal Saturday.

At least the backs seemed to enjoy themselves.

“Days like today are great,” said Zwinak, who rushed 15 times for 65 yards. “I grew up loving the mud and the rain. This is some of my favorite weather to play in, despite what everyone thinks about the rain.”

“When it's raining like that, you know where the ball's going,” said Belton, who had 13 carries for 90 yards. “It's coming to the running backs.”

Well, it did to a point. But not right away, and not as much as might be expected.

Belton did account for 75 yards -- 60 of that on the ground, and 28 on one carry -- as PSU assembled touchdown drives of 87 and 82 yards in the first half. He capped the first with his 15-yard TD reception from Hackenberg, and set Zwinak up for a two-yard run on the other. (Zwinak's other two scores came from one yard out.)

But O'Brien kept dialing up passing plays. And after a 10-for-15 start, Hackenberg missed on 17 of his last 20 attempts, to finish 13-for-35 for 176 yards, with an interception.

The most inexplicable stretch came after Zwinak began Penn State's first drive of the second half by running three times for 34 yards. The Lions then threw on their next four plays, and nine of their next 10, leading to a loss of possession on downs, a pick and a punt.

“I wish I had a couple playcalls back,” O'Brien said. “I thought we were running the ball well. There was one series where I threw the ball three plays in a row. I should have been booed on that. I've got to call better plays.”

At the same time, he said his choice of plays “wasn't about building (Hackenberg's) confidence.

“We were just calling the game,” O'Brien said. “I probably should have called some better plays at times. But I felt like the run game was going and kind of stuck with that for the rest of the second half.”

The Lions ended a string of five straight scoreless possessions when Zwinak barged in from the 1 with 4:53 left in the third quarter. In the final period Sam Ficken sandwiched a pair of field goals -- the second a career-long 54-yarder -- around Zwinak's last one-yard TD run.

Ficken is now 16 for his last 17, dating back to last year. Zwinak has eight touchdowns this fall. And the Lions, after a bye next Saturday, are looking at the Big Ten portion of their schedule, beginning with a game at Indiana on Oct. 5.

Given Saturday's proceedings, it cannot come soon enough.

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