STATE COLLEGE — In a rush to glory, Zach Zwinak lost the ball.
Just don’t blame him for Penn State losing the game.
The Lions picked up their emotionally-hurting hero with words of praise following their 34-31 loss to the Central Florida, which proved to be a game of twists and turns for their star running back.
It was Zwinak who kept them in striking range, with touchdown runs in the first, third and fourth quarters Saturday. Yet, perhaps the most pivotal play came with Zwinak trying to twist for more yards and fumbling away a critical opportunity for points in the final six minutes.
“Zwini’s a good football player,” Penn State offensive guard John Urschel said. “At the end of the day, that fumble didn’t make or break this game.”
It did break Zwinak’s heart.
“He feels bad about that, I feel bad about that,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “He ran the ball hard tonight. I love that kid. We’re with him, he’s with us. A tough way to end it for us, but he’ll be fine.”
The mistake didn’t exactly end the game, but it did dampen Penn State’s comeback hopes.
Trailing 34-24 late in the fourth quarter, Penn State drove 51 yards deep into Central Florida territory with a shot to pull even closer - in part because Zwinak ripped off a 15-yard gain earlier in the drive.
But on first-and-10 from Central Florida’s 29-yard line, Zwinak plowed forward for two yards, and had the ball stripped from his grasp on his way to the ground. Central Florida recovered, and Penn State never did.
“We fumbled there at the end,” O’Brien relented, “we were rolling pretty good. You just can’t do those things.”
Penn State later regrouped to score one final touchdown to pull within a field goal on its final drive, which ended with just under three minutes remaining in the game. But Zwinak wasn’t on the field for it, instead giving way to fellow running back Bill Belton.
It turned out the fumble was his final play.
“It was a team effort,” Penn State’s other guard, Miles Dieffenbach said of the team’s first loss of the season. “You can’t just point the finger at anybody.”
Before that fateful play, all signs pointed toward Zwinak leading a dramatic Penn State comeback.
He scored a 3-yard touchdown to tie the game 7-7 to polish off Penn State’s opening drive. He dashed for a 15-yard run and a nine-yard touchdown run, pulling Penn State within 28-17 later in the game.
He broke off a 38-yard sprint, the team’s longest rushing play of the night, then scored a one-yard touchdown four plays later to get Penn State within a touchdown, 31-24, with 13:35 still on the clock.
He finished with a game-high 128 rushing yards on 21 carries, and finished with a rare three-touchdown day.
“Zwini’s always a good runner, he’s a hard runner,” Urschel said. “It’s no surprise to me that he’s successful.”
That success should have made Zwinak feel like the star of the show.
Instead, his last play of the day pretty much closed the curtain.
But if that’s the case, his teammates insisted he wasn’t the only guy on the team who brought it down.
“Before I start talking about someone else,” Urschel said, “the first thing I have to do is look at myself in the mirror and ask myself, ‘Did I play a perfect game?’ There were a lot of things I did wrong out there.”
“We’ve all got to play better,” Dieffenbach said. “You can’t point the finger at anybody else.”