Belton, Penn State gear for tough UCF defense

Bill Belton, a junior from Winslow Township High, is hitting his stride as a Penn State running back. Associated Press
Bill Belton, a junior from Winslow Township High, is hitting his stride as a Penn State running back. Associated Press
Posted: September 15, 2013

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - After going from Penn State's opening-day starter at running back to injured player to reserve during the 2012 season, Bill Belton could have been frustrated. Perhaps he thought there was little or no chance that it would work out for him with the Nittany Lions.

Still, Belton remained optimistic with the help of his parents and the guy calling the shots, coach Bill O'Brien, who told him what he needed to do to improve at what was, for Belton, a relatively new position.

"Coach O'Brien always has been helpful," said Belton, a junior from Winslow Township High School. "So it doesn't even matter what position I was in, whether I was playing or I was hurt."

O'Brien's advice and support, coupled with Belton's hard work, paid off last week when Belton rushed for a career-high 108 yards and scored two touchdowns - one on a 51-yard scamper - in the Lions' 45-7 victory over Eastern Michigan.

"When he was being honest with me, I just took it as, I need to do more, I need to do better," Belton said. "I appreciated him for being honest with me, and it definitely made me a better player."

All three Penn State running backs - Belton, junior Zach Zwinak, and redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch - contributed to a rushing attack that gained 251 yards and scored five touchdowns, and they will try to provide sizeable production again Saturday night at Beaver Stadium against Central Florida.

That will be a key to the matchup, which features O'Brien going up against his mentor, UCF head coach George O'Leary. The Knights (2-0) have allowed just seven points and an average of 211.5 total yards in their first two games, ranking in the top 10 in the nation in both departments.

"They're very sound on defense, very physical," O'Brien said. "The type of defense that they play, it doesn't really lend itself to giving up explosive plays."

After a high-ankle sprain nagged him for much of last season, Belton believes he is on the right track to contribute to the Penn State offense. While he doesn't know what he is capable of achieving, he certainly won't rest on last week's performance.

"It's definitely great, but I can't be satisfied with that," he said. "I've got to keep improving as a player and keep doing the right things to put myself in that position."

O'Brien said he has had "a number of conversations [with Belton] about a lot of different things, not just football," and that he likes how hard he has worked on his body and his academics.

"He's come on strong here in the past couple of games," the coach said. "That's going to continue because he's going to continue to play. He's running the ball better. He's being more decisive running the ball. His pass-catching ability out of the backfield is good."

While O'Brien added that Belton must continue to work on his pass blocking, he said, "Overall, he's a much better player, and he's turned the corner off the field, I believe."

Central Florida at Penn State

Saturday at 6 p.m., Beaver Stadium, State College

Records: Central Florida, 2-0. Penn State, 2-0.

TV/Radio: Big Ten Network; WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).

Coaches: Central Florida, George O'Leary (17th season, 114-88); Penn State, Bill O'Brien (second season, 10-4).

Series: The two teams met in 2002 and 2004 with Penn State winning both times, but the victories were vacated by NCAA sanctions.

Three things to watch

Penn State's execution on third down must be more precise than its first two games, when the Nittany Lions converted just two of 26 third-down opportunities, the worst in the nation.

Expect an interesting battle of X's and O's between pupil O'Brien, the Nittany Lions' offensive mastermind, and mentor O'Leary, who has maintained his defensive mentality going back to his days as a defensive assistant coach. The Knights currently are seventh in the nation in total defense (211.5 yards).

The Nittany Lions have to find a way to keep UCF QB Blake Bortles from going deep; the redshirt junior ranks fourth in the nation with 17.6 yards per completion.

Three things you might not know

Penn State has committed six turnovers through two games. Only five teams - Syracuse, Texas Tech, San Diego State, Western Kentucky and Southern Mississippi - have more.

Central Florida is a member of the new American Athletic Conference. Of the 10 teams that currently comprise the league, Penn State has played eight of them and holds a 76-7-2 on-field record head-to-head.

True freshman Anthony Smith handled long-snapping duties on punts last week for the Lions; he is one of eight true freshmen to see action in the team's first two games. - Joe Juliano

Contact Joe Juliano at Follow on Twitter @JoeJulesInq.

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