STATE COLLEGE — It wasn’t much more than an offhand comment on a Tuesday. But Darrell Hazell said it and Bill O’Brien apparently took notice.
Hazell had talked earlier in the season about Purdue’s struggles against offensive lines with zone-blocking schemes. Asked about it again at his weekly press conference, the first-year coach of the Boilermakers said this:
“Probably it was exposed in two games — the Wisconsin game and last week’s game (against Iowa). … Penn State is a zone team. Now, is Penn State as good up front as Iowa and Wisconsin? They’re good. I don’t think they’re as good as those two teams.”
Not exactly SEC-caliber mudslinging. But for Penn State’s purposes, it seemed to work just fine as a motivational tool. Particularly when the opponent hadn’t been an FBS team all year.
Four quarters, 289 yards and five touchdowns on the ground later, the Nittany Lions had themselves a 45-21 win over the Boilers on Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
“We felt like we could run the ball,” O’Brien said at the top of his postgame press conference. “I’m not sure if they felt like we could run the ball on them. I think they felt Wisconsin and Iowa were better than us. That’s for you guys to judge.
“But we rushed the ball for (289) yards today. So I’d say that’s pretty good.”
Wisconsin, incidentally, rushed for 388 yards against the Boilers while Iowa gained 318 on the ground.
More important than the exact numbers for the Lions was the result. After a disheartening 10-point showing last week at Minnesota, Penn State responded by dominating Purdue at the line of scrimmage and never needed to send the punt team on the field.
“People were saying we can’t run the ball, and we really got out there this week,” said senior lineman Eric Shrive, who got to make his first career start as an extra tackle in the tight end spot
In 11 offensive possessions, the Lions (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) scored six touchdowns, kicked a field goal, committed two turnovers and twice had time run out in the half.
Zach Zwinak continued his run to redemption with 149 yards and tied a personal best with three touchdowns. Bill Belton ran for 81 more and a score while Akeel Lynch picked up 44 in his return from a knee injury.
“This was a real fun game for us with respect to just coming off the ball and hitting plays,” senior guard John Urschel said. “The offensive linemen, we really enjoyed it. Especially the (interior linemen) … we were having a blast.
“When you’re an offensive lineman and you’re getting yards in the game, you just want to run the ball over and over and over again.”
Which is essentially what happened as the Lions had a season-high 58 rushing attempts.
It was even enough to overcome an all-too-familiar problem for Penn State as Belton lost a fumble for the third time in as many games, giving the Lions 12 total on the season.
The giveaway came with Penn State leading just 14-7 and the Boilermakers (1-9, 0-6) starting to pick up steam. This time, however, the defense responded with perhaps the play of the game.
Sophomore corner Jordan Lucas diagnosed a Purdue playcall on third-and-10, read the eyes of freshman quarterback Danny Etling and jumped an out route for his team-best third interception of the season.
Six plays later, Penn State was back in the end zone and leading 21-7.
“It felt good because film (study) is never 100 percent,” Lucas said. “So your mind can play a trick on you when you tell yourself, ‘All right, it’s going to be this play.’ Then it’s a whole different thing that you never saw in film before. So really once you get the feel that it’s going to be that play, you just go for it.”
The defense forced three turnovers — Deion Barnes and Nyeem Wartman each came up with a strip sack with Austin Johnson and Mike Hull recovering, respectively — and the Lions turned each play into a touchdown.
“Our defense came to play today,” O’Brien said. “They created some good turnovers and we were able to take advantage of them. It was good to see.”
It wasn’t all pretty, of course. Purdue’s previously listless offense did manage two touchdowns, with a third coming on a 100-yard kickoff return. The Lions also turned it over twice themselves and only a saving tackle by kicker Sam Ficken on another kickoff return prevented a second special teams score by Purdue.
But the Lions are happy to have picked up a bit of momentum as they look to pull an upset over Nebraska or Wisconsin in the final two weeks to finish with a winning record.
And they’ll need to run the ball well to pull it off.
“One of our keys to victory every week is to establish the running game,” O’Brien said. “When you go in there and you actually do it, the players do it, that helps the confidence of the team during the game. ‘Hey this is working, these are the plays we’ve been running in practice all week and it’s going well.’
“That definitely gives us confidence.”