Off Campus: Emotional finale for players who stuck with Penn State

Posted: November 25, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Penn State sophomore tailback Zach Zwinak had options if he wanted to transfer from Happy Valley last summer, after NCAA sanctions dropped on the Nittany Lions. The groundbreaking sanctions included immediate eligibility for anyone looking to go elsewhere.

" All the kids had options," pointed out Penn State defensive coordinator Ted Roof, remembering last summer's feeding frenzy.

The offensive star of Saturday's season-ender was fourth string coming out of spring ball. Could you have blamed Zwinak if he had wanted a new start that came with better hopes of getting on the field?

"I made the decision . . . I talked to my parents," Zwinak said, declining to name which schools had called him but making it sound as if there were options to be considered.

Saturday night, defensive end Pete Massaro celebrated that and other decisions when he said, "Us seniors get a lot of recognition for kind of keeping the wheels on this thing, but without some of these younger guys staying, we would be nothing."

By any account, special leadership was a key to the Nittany Lions' putting the past in the past, overcoming a 0-2 start, and going 8-4, finishing off with a 24-21 overtime win Saturday over Wisconsin.

However, Penn State's seniors, almost all of them, were going to stay and finish what they started. Nittany Lions underclassmen had more options because of their additional eligibility.

Nobody would have thought much of it if Zwinak had left last summer. Yet here he was, smash-mouthing his way to 179 yards Saturday on 26 carries. He finished this season with precisely 1,000 rushing yards, finally being helped off the field with cramps in both legs when he hit that mark in overtime.

"I went for an extra push," Zwinak said of the leg muscles crying uncle. "I guess they were done. Thirty-six carries is a lot. That's a career high, from youth all the way up."

He felt he'd get a chance, just not so soon or so often.

"No one would have ever thought that," Zwinak said. "Everything changes, week to week, day to day."

Who would have predicted that a Sam Ficken field goal would be the game-winner?

Asked if he'd have made that 37-yarder earlier this season, Ficken said, "Which game?"

He can throw a little dry humor around now, but the sophomore, an emergency fill-in of sorts after star placekicker Anthony Fera transferred to Texas, turned off all social media after he missed four field goals in a one-point loss at Virginia in Penn State's second game. Ficken finished with 10 straight makes, after his last one  barely stayed inside the left upright.

Meanwhile, Zwinak worked his way up the depth chart after another bruising tailback, Silas Redd, left for USC. He ran behind a dominating line that included three starters who have eligibility remaining, who could have transferred to Illinois or other places in a heartbeat.

In a unique aspect of the NCAA sanctions, coaches could call Penn State players during the regular season, and still can. Nittany Lions players still are allowed to transfer and gain immediate eligibility from now until the start of next year's preseason workouts in August.

There were no signs of any recruiters hanging around in the cold outside the locker room Saturday night.

"Winning your last football game, the taste that leaves in your mouth, as opposed to losing your last game - there's a huge difference," said Roof, the defensive coordinator, acknowledging it won't hurt recruiting and will help keep current players in the fold.

If recruits remember anything said after this game, it will probably be the postgame television interview when Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien, applauding his players, seemed to use a variation of a word generally heard on live television only when Chase Utley is at a victory parade. (Let's assume the FCC isn't happy. But recruits won't mind it, and it probably didn't hurt O'Brien when he got in the Tom Brady's face on television when he was New England's offensive coordinator.)

In a calmer mood at his postgame news conference, O'Brien talked of the "huge difference" between 8-4 and 7-5 - it just  sounds better." O'Brien talked of the "euphoric feeling" of winning the last one instead of the "horrible feeling" felt in a locker room after ending a season on a loss.

As for any calls Zwinak gets now from opposing coaches, he made it sound as if it would be wasted cell usage.

"When I chose to stay - I'm here until the end," the tailback said. 


Contact Mike Jensen at  mjensen@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Jensenoffcampus.

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