Penn State running game finally at full strength

Matt McGloin hands off to Michael Zordich, one of five Lions backs ready to go Saturday.
Matt McGloin hands off to Michael Zordich, one of five Lions backs ready to go Saturday. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 29, 2012

Much of the hoopla surrounding the NFL-style offense new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien brought to Happy Valley involves the pass game.

Quarterback Matt McGloin has imitated Tom Brady as well as the former walk-on can, and sophomore Allen Robinson, with fantasy league-like statistics, has emerged as one of the best wide receivers in the country.

But the running game? That has been a question mark since Silas Redd bolted to sunny Southern California.

Through four games, the Nittany Lions (2-2) rank last in the Big Ten with an average of 124 rushing yards per game. They are 94th among 120 Division I teams.

Can Penn State turn it around and become a more versatile team? This week will be a good indicator.

When the Nittany Lions open their Big Ten slate against Illinois (2-2), Penn State's running back group will be at full strength for the first time since the third quarter of the season opener against Ohio.

The revolving door - which includes four different starters through four games - may finally halt.

On Tuesday, O'Brien said he expected Bill Belton (high ankle sprain), Derek Day (shoulder), Curtis Dukes (thigh), and Michael Zordich (bruised knee) to have shaken off their injuries and be available Saturday.

"Those guys have all contributed to where we are in the season," O'Brien said. "We've got a good situation there with some tough kids that can run the ball, pass-protect, and catch the football."

Indeed, each running back - all thrust into a larger role this season - has contributed to the team.

After Belton, Penn State's most complete back, was sidelined in the third quarter of the season opener, Day, a former walk-on, assumed the No. 1 job.

When Day separated his shoulder in the third quarter against Virginia - after compiling a career-high 47 yards - it was Dukes' turn. Then Zordich, a linebacker turned fullback, became a tailback.

"I think we know as a group we have a lot of versatility," Day said. "From the power back to the more shifty guys to the pass protectors to catching the ball, we have it all in that room. And I think we all know that and understand anyone's roles could change for any game."

Meanwhile at USC last weekend, Redd exploded for 158 yards and a touchdown for his best game as a Trojan.

But the Nittany Lions aren't thinking of that. Though they have long relied on just one featured back to carry the load - before Redd it was Evan Royster, Tony Hunt, and so on - O'Brien's sanctions-affected team has a new approach.

It's running back by committee. And while all are unlikely to play Saturday, O'Brien said he expected two or three to see action.

"I went into their meeting [Monday] and told them, 'Hey, look, guys, we got five guys that are good players, tough guys, love coaching them,' " O'Brien said. " 'So let's go out and practice well, and we'll as a coaching staff decide who's going to play on Saturday.' "

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