Two years ago, Zach Zwinak figured he‚??d never play again. On Saturday he was driving his shoulder into defensive tackles and sending helmets flying.
Starter Bill Belton returned to the field against Illinois, but Penn State‚??s running back situation still has a committee approach going forward.
Five different backs got a carry in the 35-7 victory as the Nittany Lions turned in their best performance on the ground this season.
‚??We were all having a blast,‚?Ě Zwinak said. ‚??We kept grinding it out and gaining yards.‚?Ě
For the second straight week, Zwinak led Penn State‚??s rushing effort. His second touchdown against the Fighting Illini came on his 19th carry and gave him exactly 100 yards. It was the first time the Lions had a 100-yard rusher in 11 months -- since their last game against Illinois.
His career stunted as a freshman because of a torn ACL, Zwinak has now led the Lions in rushing in back-to-back weeks after posting 94 yards against Temple.
But the real revelation came in the Illinois game as the redshirt sophomore surprised even his own teammates with his physical, effective running style.
‚??He‚??s just a downhill runner,‚?Ě guard John Urschel said. ‚??He gets his head down and he knocks people back. I think he may have knocked some people out of the game.
‚??I didn‚??t know he had that in him. I know he was running hard last week, but he took it to a whole different level this week. That was really really impressive and great to see as an offensive lineman. He was punishing the defense.‚?Ě
Zwinak wasn‚??t sure if he had that in him anymore either. A star recruit as a fullback out of Linganore High School in Maryland, Zwinak was already set for a redshirt in 2010 when he tore an ACL during an October practice.
‚??That‚??s the hardest thing I‚??ve ever done,‚?Ě Zwinak said. ‚??I was never hurt before. That was my first real injury. I mean, I thought my career was done for a little bit.
‚??I had never experienced anything like that, and I didn‚??t know how hard it would be to come back. Or if I would be the same person. ‚?Ľ When I got the MRI and the doc told me it was torn, I thought it was the end of the world for me.‚?Ě
He recovered in time to play sparingly in 2011, appearing in two games and getting just three carries.
It wasn‚??t until Silas Redd transferred and injuries to Bill Belton and Derek Day that he got his first extended shot in the backfield.
And now he has turned into something of a closer for the Lions, wearing down defenses in the second half.
‚??(Against Illinois) I felt he was the guy who was getting the ball downhill,‚?Ě Lions coach Bill O‚??Brien said. ‚??He was seeing the cut and running physical. He‚??s a big kid and he can run.
‚??Billy (Belton) did some nice things in the running game, too. You have guys there who are running the football pretty well. But Zwinak is a very physical back and ran the ball today.‚?Ě
Belton missed three games with an ankle injury but appeared to be fully healthy against the Illini, making sharp cuts when needed.
He finished with 65 yards on 16 carries.
‚??I felt great going into the week,‚?Ě Belton said. ‚??I didn‚??t have no pain at all. Going forward, obviously, I‚??m at full health. ‚?Ľ I don‚??t have any problems with the ankle injury lingering or anything like that.‚?Ě
Heading into the rest of Big Ten play, Belton and Zwinak have the makings of a serviceable one-two punch in the backfield, with each bringing something different to the table.
Day, coming off of a separated shoulder, had four carries for 14 yards. Curtis Dukes, who sat out against Temple, picked up 21 yards on five carries -- all of which came in the fourth quarter with the Lions comfortably ahead.
Fullback Michael Zordich, dealing with a sore knee, only got the ball once against the Illini but has shown he can fill in if needed.
‚??We‚??ve got five different backs who can do five different things,‚?Ě Belton said. ‚??We‚??ve got power backs, speed backs. We‚??ve got guys who can do it all. We can look for all of us to play, and we‚??re all going to do big things.‚?Ě
at PENN STATE
Noon Saturday, ESPN
Michael Mauti didn‚??t get his touchdown. But the consolation prize wasn‚??t too shabby.
The Penn State senior linebacker was honored on Sunday when he was named the Walter Camp Football Foundation‚??s National Defensive Player of the Week. The Nittany Lions‚?? defensive leader had two interceptions while recording six tackles and splitting a sack in a 35-7 win over Illinois.
He played a big part in a third turnover, getting a free run at an Illini return man, who dropped a punt just as Mauti was about to lay into him. Penn State recovered, setting up a quick 7-0 lead as well as the tone for the game.
Mauti broke a school record on his first interception by returning it 99 yards before being dragged down just short of the goal line.