Twice this season, Zach Zwinak has fumbled. Twice he has spent the rest of the game on the sideline.
Ball security remains the biggest concern for Penn State’s primary tailback headed into Saturday’s game at Ohio State. But while fumbles have cost Zwinak snaps in a pair of big games, don’t look for the Nittany Lions to scrap their rotation in the backfield.
“Well, I think Zach has practiced well this week,” Lions coach Bill O’Brien said. “He came out and had a good practice (Monday). Great kid, tough kid, and he’s going to play, obviously.”
Whether he continues to start is another question.
Zwinak has been the feature back for the Lions since midway through last season and started all six games at tailback this season. Going back to 2012, Zwinak has 10 consecutive starts for the team after opening that season buried on the depth chart.
But during that stretch he has now fumbled seven times, including two in key spots this year.
Against UCF in September, Zwinak lost the ball in the fourth quarter. The Lions were down 10 points at the time and only ran three offensive plays after the turnover, so it didn’t turn many heads.
Much more noticeable was in the Lions’ last game against Michigan. Zwinak lost the ball on the first play of the second half as the Wolverines scooped it up and ran it back for a touchdown.
Zwinak never took the field again. Bill Belton took every snap in the second half and in all four overtimes. The junior converted a game-saving fourth-and-1 in the fourth overtime before scoring the winning touchdown.
“Billy has improved quite a bit,” O’Brien said. “He’s another guy that’s in that category of a guy that’s really worked hard to improve and this year has taken advantage of his playing time when he’s been out there.
“We’ll continue to rotate guys in at that position, and both of those guys will play against Ohio State.”
Zwinak still leads the team with 393 yards on the ground to go with eight touchdowns.
“He’s a good football player, and we’ve all been encouraging him,” senior guard John Urschel said. “To play this game well, you have to have a short memory. He learned from it. We’ve been doing things to focus on good ball control. But at the end of the day, he’s moved on.”
Hot on the trail
Penn State’s big recruiting weekend from the Michigan game continues to pay off.
The Lions have secured three verbal commitments since the four-overtime win over the Wolverines, two of whom switched from other schools.
New Jersey tight end Mike Gesicki, Massachusetts running back Johnathan Thomas and New Jersey linebacker Jason Cabinda all pledged to O’Brien and the Lions in the past week.
Gesicki, rated the top tight end in the country by at least one recruiting service, had been considered a heavy lean to pick Urban Meyer and Ohio State before taking his official visit to Penn State for the Michigan game.
Thomas and Cabinda had already been verbally committed to Maryland and Syracuse, respectively, before reversing course this week.
All three decisions were influenced by the NCAA reducing the sanctions against Penn State, giving the Lions five additional scholarships for the upcoming recruiting class.
That flexibility allowed them to formally extend offers to Thomas and Cabinda that weren’t there before. Both ultimately accepted.
Gesicki already had an offer, but the NCAA’s decision led to him taking a closer look at the Lions, whom he had early eliminated as a destination.
Penn State now has 15 verbal commitments for the 2014 signing class. The team can sign up to 20 this February (up from 15 originally because of the sanctions) in addition to a few early enrollees that can count against the previous class instead.
O’Brien celebrated his 44th birthday on Wednesday. Well, maybe “celebrated” is too strong of a word.
The coach memorably revealed last October that he was not, in his words, “a big birthday guy. … Birthdays. Weddings. Theme parks. The beach.”
These are a few of his (least) favorite things.
This year, he received birthday wishes from a trio of undergrads at his weekly radio show on Thursday. Though he quickly deflected it, he did reveal later that he received a memorable gift.
“Yeah, John Urschel gave me a book,” O’Brien said to laughter from the crowd, well aware of Urschel’s academic prowess.
The book? “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, which takes an in-depth look at cases of high-level success.