The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Sports

November 6, 2013

Penn State’s Belton near rushing milestone

STATE COLLEGE — Bill Belton’s position on Penn State’s depth chart finally matches the number he wears on his uniform.

It’s been a difficult journey to that No. 1 spot at tailback. The former utility man in high school, who played quarterback, receiver and defensive back, entered Penn State as a receiver before being asked in January 2012 by coach Bill O’Brien to carry the ball.

With just four yards against Minnesota (7-2, 3-2 Big Ten) on Saturday, Belton will become the 41st Penn State player to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for his career. He has 668 yards this season on 128 carries for a per-carry average of 5.2 yards.

Last week’s performance against Illinois – Belton became the first Penn State tailback to rush for 200 yards (201) in a game since Larry Johnson in 2002 – earned him Big Ten co-offensive player of the week honors for the first time.

His rapid progression hasn’t been lost on Belton. O’Brien provided him the opportunity and he’s made the most of it – not unlike a lot of his teammates in this new era of Penn State football.

“It’s very rewarding, but it’s not over yet,” Belton said. “It’s basically just beginning and still I have more football left, so I have to stay focused on that.”

Nothing has come easily for Belton, from the position switch to a slow recovery from an ankle injury last year to earning only limited carries during the early portion of this season for Penn State (5-3, 2-2).

“I never doubted myself. I always had belief in myself,” he said. “My parents always told me to keep that about me and I did, so everything worked out. A few weeks ago I was just trying to do my best to improve as a player and help the team, and that’s still my mind-set.”

Belton now has to set his mind around being Penn State’s go-to running back. He was playing behind Zach Zwinak, who rushed for 1,000 yards last season, but Zwinak’s penchant for fumbling helped create Belton’s opportunity.

Because of Belton’s size – he’s about 40 pounds lighter than Zwinak – teams might alter their defensive gameplans a bit against him, but it hasn’t hurt his production.

And on the flip side, Penn State’s offensive strategy has remained the same.

In fact, Belton carried a grueling 36 times against Illinois – and 85 times in the last three games. That’s more than enough to make sure O’Brien limits Belton’s contact work in midweek practice.

“Having a game like that is something you have to get used to, and I’m making the adjustment just fine,” Belton said. “My body is holding up well. I’ll be ready to go on Saturday.

“It’s a great feeling when your head coach has confidence in you and knows you and really cares about you,” Belton said. “Having a coach like that, I’d go to war for any day.”

Notes: A victory over Penn State would mark the first time the Gophers have won eight games since 2003, and the first time they have won four Big Ten games since 2005. A victory also would give Minnesota four straight Big Ten victories in a season for the first time since 1973. ... Penn State leads the series with Minnesota 8-4, but wins for each team have come in four-game streaks. ... Penn State’s freshman quarterback, Christian Hackenberg, leads the Big Ten in passing yards (2,024), completions (164) and attempts (281).

 

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