Two touches. That’s all he got for an entire month. A most frustrating conclusion to a season that Bill Belton had pegged as his breakthrough.
When the 2012 season opened last September, Belton was Penn State’s starting running back. By the time November rolled around, he got just one carry in the final four months. He lost 1 yard.
His only other time with the ball in his hands came on a short kick return against Wisconsin. It was enough to make people wonder, given the lax transfer rules still in effect for Penn State players, whether Belton would be back for 2013.
Well, here he still is. This November, he has a chance to make up for all of that, entering the final month of the season as the Nittany Lions’ starter in the backfield.
He cemented the role last week against Ohio State, one of the very few bright spots in an otherwise miserable night for the Lions.
Belton rushed for 98 yards against the No. 4 Buckeyes and would have topped 100 easily had he not been pulled along with most of the starters in the third quarter, when the game was already out of hand.
“I did all right, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Belton said afterward. “(The coaches) definitely will review the film, look at the mistakes we had as a running back group and just go from there.”
Belton ran for more yards against Ohio State than any other player this season. The previous high had been 78 by Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.
It was Belton’s first start at tailback since the Ohio State game last season. That was also at the end of October, and it was the last game he played any kind of significant role for the Lions in 2012.
With former starter Zach Zwinak continuing to struggle with ball security — the junior lost his third fumble in the past five games on Saturday — Bill O’Brien is putting more faith in Belton than ever.
“He’s a much improved player. He really is,” the Penn State coach said. “He’s more patient in the running game. I think he understands how to watch film better. I think he’s a better teammate. I think he’s a smarter player. He’s a very smart player.
“In our system, one of the hardest things to learn for a running back are the protections, and he’s able to learn those and does a good job with it. So right now he’s our starting running back. He’s done a nice job.”
It’s high praise coming from O’Brien, who had Belton in his doghouse at the end of last season.
Belton had missed time early in the campaign with a high ankle sprain but returned after a bye week to score three touchdowns against Iowa.
Things fell apart for the New Jersey native from there. Though O’Brien never went into specific details about why Belton seemed to be stapled to the sideline, the coach made it pretty clear that Belton’s habits during the week were keeping him off the field on Saturdays.
Academics were a concern for Belton last summer, as he sat out a full session of offseason workouts to concentrate on his grades. It wasn’t until the end of July into August that Penn State knew Belton would be eligible to play.
O’Brien said he has seen better all-around commitment this year from Belton, who was frustrated at his diminished role last November.
His attitude has improved.
“I just think that he accepts his role from week to week,” O’Brien said. “He understands it and he takes advantage of it. He’s a great teammate as far as a friend and all that.
“I mean his role on the team, he understands it better, and that’s part of being a good teammate, too. And he does a really good job with that.”
To wit — Belton wasn’t exactly in a celebratory mood on Saturday despite his own solid performance.
“I had a decent game,” Belton said. “But it’s not something to pat myself on the back (about).”
Through seven games, Belton now leads the team with 467 yards rushing to go with three touchdowns on the ground, including the game-winner in the fourth overtime against Michigan.
Just as important was the fourth-and-1 he converted a few plays earlier on the drive, waiting for the play to develop before finding a crack in the line to squeeze through and extend the game.
He also had nine catches out of the backfield for 95 yards and two more scores, allowing the coaches to keep him on the field in most any situation.
Zwinak still figures to be part of the offense going forward, particularly if he can regain some of the coaching staff’s trust. And that’s fine with Belton.
“Whatever the game calls for,” Belton said. “Whether it’s me or Zach or us both rotating, I think we both do a good job with that.”