Penn State Ground Game Comes Alive

Things finally clicked for the Nittany Lion rushing attack in the victory over UMass. What to make of it?

If Saturday represented a coming-out party for Penn State's running game, let the record show that the celebration seemed rather muted.

Yes, the Nittany Lions rushed for a season-high 228 yards in a 48-7 victory over Massachusetts, one more than they had managed in their first three games combined, while holding UMass to exactly three.

Yes, their top three tailbacks all had their moments. So too did fourth-stringer Cole Chiappialle, on whom head coach James Franklin admitted to having a “man crush.”

But no, nobody was ready to declare that the run-game problems had been solved.

Franklin, true to form, said it was “awesome” that the Lions were finally able to get something going on the ground, en route to the school's first 4-0 start since 2008. Beyond that, he thought the greatest benefit of the game was that there were no serious injuries. That he was able to yank his starters by the latter stages of the third quarter. That so many reserves played.

“We've still got a long way to go to get better, in all three phases,” he said, “but it's nice to have some success running the ball this week.”

Maybe the best perspective came from Akeel Lynch, the talented (and oft-forgotten) sophomore tailback. He led the Lions with 81 yards on eight rushes, including a 46-yard burst in the first half, but wasn't about to get too worked up, either.

“It's a stepping stone,” he said of the game. “Definitely a stepping stone for all of us. … It's just a stepping stone to the next game.”

One reporter asked Lynch what led him to believe the Lions might have a breakout game. He resisted the urge to say, “The stat sheet,” even though the Minutemen (0-4) began the day ranked 106th among 125 major-college teams against the rush, allowing a whopping 218 yards a game.

Rather, he said, “I think it was just a mindset thing. We said, 'You know what? We can run the ball. We have talented guys on the O-Line, and we have talented guys on the running back (corps). … We've got to step it up.' ”

“It's a stepping stone. Definitely a stepping stone for all of us. … It's just a stepping stone to the next game.”

Whatever the case -- and the stat sheet continues to make a compelling argument -- the Lions, who entered the game with the nation's 117th-ranked running game (75.7 yards per game), steamrolled the Minutemen. PSU's yardage total, achieved on 45 carries, was over twice that of its previous season high (106, against Akron).

Five of PSU's six touchdowns came via the run, including four in the second quarter -- two each by Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak -- as the Lions enjoyed their first 28-point quarter since 2009, against Michigan State.

Lynch ran 15 yards for another score in the third quarter, offering hints once more of his potential -- potential he has only been able to flash on occasion since he arrived on campus, and usually only against weak opponents.

“Being a young guy, being a sophomore, I just have the mentality that whenever the chance (comes), you've got to be ready,” he said. “So every day in practice I just conduct myself like a starter, so when my chance comes I'll just always be ready.”

He wasn't about to bite when asked what the coaches have told him he needs to do to get on the field more regularly, though there are suspicions it has something to do with his blocking and/or receiving. All he said was this: “I think we've just got a lot of talented guys. I'm just waiting for my turn, and when my time comes I just try to seize the opportunity.”

He received one on Saturday, but then again, so did everyone else. Belton finished with 76 yards on seven tries, while Zwinak had 28 on nine attempts. Chiappialle had more carries than anybody else -- 16, all coming in the second half -- and netted 35 yards.

It was so one-sided that the Lions didn't need a surpassing game from quarterback Christian Hackenberg. He missed on eight of his first 12 throws en route to a so-so 12-for-23, 179-yard game.

“The coaches were telling us we've got to get it going, we've got to take some pressure off the guy sitting next to me,” Belton said, looking down a long counter to where Hackenberg was addressing reporters. “He does a good job throwing the ball. Now we've got to do our part by running the ball, to help him and help this offense and help this team get where it needs to be.”

There was a lineup change up front, with Derek Dowrey replacing Brian Gaia at right guard. Franklin declined to divulge why the switch was made, other than to say it wasn't for disciplinary reasons.

Beyond that, the principals reached again for that mindset thing.

“I think all week in practice Coach (Herb) Hand was really stressing that we were going to get better this week, and I think we did,” tackle Andrew Nelson said, referring to the line coach.

Starting tackle Donovan Smith left the game with an injury late in the first quarter, but returned on the next series with a neoprene sleeve on his left arm. And the Lions continued to hammer away.

“I think it definitely helps us confidence-wise, because we knew what kind of line we could be; we just weren't executing,” Nelson said. “Today we executed, and it showed us that hey, we can be the guys we want to be.”

And just who might that be?

“I think obviously we're a young line and we're not that experienced,” he said, “but I think that we can be just as good as any O-line in the country.”

Only time will tell if that turns out to be true. And that time wasn't Saturday afternoon.

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