Lions run over Purdue
STATE COLLEGE – There’s a very fine line coaches walk when talking about other teams because everything they say could, and will, be dissected for potential bulletin-board material.
Bill O’Brien found something he took exception to that Purdue coach Darell Hazell said early in the week, and it served as motivation for Penn State’s 45-21 win Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
“We felt like we could run the ball,” O’Brien said. “I’m not sure if they felt like that we could run the ball on them. I think they felt Wisconsin and Iowa were better than us, and that’s for you guys [in the media] to judge. But we rushed the ball for  yards today, so I’d say that’s pretty good.”
O’Brien, a bit edgier than usual during his postgame news conference, made that comment right off the bat when asked about his team’s strong rushing performance. It seemed to be a direct response to what Hazell said Tuesday, a comment that didn’t create much of a ripple in the Pennsylvania media last week but clearly aggravated O’Brien.
“Is Penn State as good up front as Iowa and Wisconsin?” Hazell said. “They’re good. I don’t think they’re as good as those two teams.”
Hazell might not have meant anything inflammatory by those words, but no coach ever wants to hear an opposing coach say publicly that his team isn’t as good as somebody else.
“The offensive line was challenged this week, and we took that challenge and we really ran with it,” PSU lineman Eric Shrive said.
Asked what ways the line was challenged, Shrive added, “People were saying we can’t run the ball, and we really got out there and pushed them around today.”
The Boilermakers’ defense has been destroyed on the ground all season, ranking among the nation’s worst statistically, and their woes include giving up 388 yards rushing to Wisconsin and 318 to Iowa.
Penn State (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) didn’t equal those figures, so perhaps in a sense Hazell might have been correct, but the Lions still were plenty good enough to shred Purdue’s porous run defense all day.
Zach Zwinak ran for 149 yards on 26 carries, while Bill Belton gained 81 yards on 19 carries to lead the ground attack. Akeel Lynch added 44 yards on nine carries, and PSU ran the ball 58 times at 5.0 yards per clip as the offensive line controlled the trenches.
“It was definitely a great day to have everybody in on it,” said Zwinak, who also credited the downfield blocking by the receivers.
O’Brien committed to the run from the outset, with PSU keeping it on the ground for nine of 13 plays during a 75-yard TD drive to start the game. The Lions had 182 yards rushing in the first half alone.
The game was a complete reversal from the loss at Indiana earlier this season when Penn State threw the ball 55 times against a poor run defense. O’Brien took exception to a question Saturday about the perception that he prefers to throw the ball.
“I don’t like to throw the ball,” he said. “I like to be balanced.
“I like to do things that are best for the football team. Since the day I walked in the door here I tried to do what’s best for this football team and these football players every single minute. Whether it’s a play call or a recruiting strategy or a game strategy, I don’t like to do one thing versus the other. I like to be balanced and try to do what’s best for the football team, and today it was running the ball.”
The passing game was effective, too, as Christian Hackenberg completed 16 of 23 for 212 yards, one TD and one interception. Allen Robinson caught eight passes for 98 yards, and with 81 receptions now, he broke his single-season PSU record of 77 set last year.
The Lions also converted 10 of 12 third downs, which has been a big issue all season.
Penn State was so dominant offensively that it didn’t punt the entire game.
“We were scoring the ball almost every time we had it,” tight end Jesse James said. “It gave everyone a lot more confidence to keep things rolling.”
Belton scored from 5 yards out on the first drive, Zwinak ran for two scores in the first half and Adam Breneman caught an 8-yard TD pass from Hackenberg. The Lions appeared to be cruising up 28-7, but Raheem Mostert’s 100-yard kickoff return for a score made it 28-14 at the half.
Purdue’s offense has struggled almost as badly as its defense this season, but the Boilermakers (1-9, 0-6) got the ball to start the second half and drove 84 yards to get right back in the game. Quarterback Danny Etling scored on a 5-yard run, and despite the fact that PSU had dominated, it was just 28-21 with 11:19 left in the third quarter.
The Lions quickly regained the momentum as Hackenberg hit James for a 58-yard catch and run down to the Purdue 16. They had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Sam Ficken, but that drive seemed to swing things back in Penn State’s favor.
Defensive end Deion Barnes sacked Etling and forced a fumble on Purdue’s next possession, with Austin Johnson recovering for PSU at the Purdue 40. Three completions by Hackenberg moved PSU to the 17, and Zwinak did the rest, going 17 yards in three carries and getting his third TD from 5 yards out with 5:21 to go in the third for a 38-21 lead.
“We watched the film and OB set up a game plan, and we just happened to run the ball a lot today and we were successful,” Zwinak said.
Penn State’s defense continued to play well the rest of the second half and blanked Purdue. The Lions forced three turnovers, with all three leading to touchdowns.
“Any time you can force a turnover it’s going to put the offense in good position to go down and score points,” PSU linebacker Mike Hull said. “That’s what we’ve been hoping to have all season, so it was good to have that today.”
The Lions now have some momentum and confidence heading into their final home game of the season next week against Nebraska. Even though the team has lost four games already, it’s not wise to use words like morale around O’Brien.
The coach was asked about how getting the running game going can help a team’s morale, but he zeroed in on that word itself and went on a mini-rant that concluded with one of his most creative lines of the season.
“We have no problem with morale,” O’Brien said. “Our team is enthusiastic, they are proud, they love to play football, they love to play for Penn State. We don’t have one problem with morale. Not one problem with morale. And never have since I walked in the door here.
“We use the word morale around here like we just throw it out there like it’s a cheeseburger.”