UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Offensive tackle Garry Gilliam wanted Penn State to gain 400 rushing yards against Purdue. That’s what he told the running backs before the game, anyways, and despite the near impossibility of that benchmark, running back Zach Zwinak wasn’t averse to dreaming of such a large number.
“We always want to set a goal we can reach,” Zwinak said.
Penn State didn’t accumulate 400 rushing yards in its 45-21 victory against Purdue on Saturday, but it did finish with 289 yards and re-emphasized its ability to win games on the ground.
Granted, of course, this happened against the Boilermakers (1-9, 0-6) who are considered a football team by formality only, a caveat that must be considered before any analysis or discussion of a Purdue game. That said, Penn State’s 289 yards was its highest total of the season.
“We felt like we could run the ball,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “I’m not sure they felt like we could run the ball like that on them. I think they thought Wisconsin and Iowa were better than us.”
Earlier this week, Purdue coach Darrell Hazell said he didn’t think Penn State (6-4, 3-3) was as good at running as those two teams. Technically he was right. Wisconsin gained 388 yards against Purdue and Iowa 318.
Look a little deeper, though, and maybe Penn State’s 289 yards were more impressive than Wisconsin or Iowa, or at least illustrate the Nittany Lions took greater advantage of a miserable defense. The Badgers’ rushing total against Purdue was 39 percent greater than its average of 280, and Iowa’s was 64 percent greater than its average of 194. Penn State’s 289 yards were 73 percent greater than its average of 167.
Either way, Penn State ran the ball a lot and did so with success (it earned more first downs, 31, than it had earned since 2005). Before every game, coach O’Brien said he lists rushing the ball consistently as a key to victory.
“When players actually do it that definitely helps the confidence of the team during the game,” he said.
Though Purdue forced two fumbles, returned a kickoff for a touchdown and started the second half with a long scoring drive that brought it within seven at 28-21, Penn State answered by clamping down on defense.
Cornerback Adrian Amos had 1.5 sacks, and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, defensive end Deion Barnes, linebacker Nyeem Wartman and Carl Nassib all had one sack. Nassib, Wartman, Barnes and linebacker Mike Hull each helped force a fumble. The three turnovers Penn State forced – two fumbles and a Jordan Lucas interception – were the most the Nittany Lions have had since the season opener.
“I think we were just playing with our hair on fire and getting after the quarterback,” defensive tackle Kyle Baublitz said.
As the defense stopped Purdue, Penn State scored 17 unanswered points to close the game. The last touchdown went to quarterback Christian Hackenberg on a bootleg. Zwinak was in the backfield and had no idea the call was a play action. So when he rushed through the middle and realized he didn’t have the ball he thought he had screwed up.
“Then I saw him running with it,” Zwinak said, “and I was like ‘thank God.’”
That’s right, even Hackenberg was running. It was the opposite of how Penn State started its Big Ten schedule.
Against Indiana in October, Penn State ran for 70 yards on 38 carries while passing the ball 55 times and had similar struggles against other teams this season. Throughout, O’Brien has maintained he’s not a pass-happy guy. He’s proven this through play-calling.
In the Big Ten last year, Penn State had a nearly 50-50 split of passing plays and running plays. This year in league play, the amount of rushes to passes is even higher, at 55 percent to 45 percent, and the last three games have featured a significant rise.
Against Illinois, Minnesota and now Purdue, Penn State has run the ball 64 percent of the time, gaining 729 yards on 142 carries, which is 243 yards per game on 5.7 yards per carry. The Nittany Lions have passed the ball 80 times for 615 yards.
O’Brien sounded annoyed when he was asked how tough it was for him to stay away from the passing game. Penn State runs the ball, a lot. And it proved that more than ever against Purdue.
“I don’t like to do one thing versus the other,” O’Brien said. “I like to be balanced and try to do what’s best for the football team, and today was run the ball.”
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05 First Published November 16, 2013 1:40 PM