Improving PSU running game faces porous Illinois defense |
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Chris Adamski
Penn State running back Akeel Lynch (22) breaks away from Temple defensive back Alex Wells (21) to score on a 38-yard touchdown run in the third quarter Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, in University Park.

Could it be that Penn State’s season-long struggles in the running game are coming to an end?

It appeared that way last week, and there are reasons to believe it was not an aberration. Better news for Nittany Lions’ running backs and linemen? Next up is one of the nation’s worst rush defenses.

Coming off a season-best 254 yards against Temple, Penn State faces an Illinois team that ranks 124th among 128 FBS teams against the run. With the veteran leaders of the PSU offensive line approaching full health, the Lions believe they can have a repeat performance.

“There is more continuity up front, and the result is a bigger running game,” running backs coach Charles Huff said. “The offense is able to roll a little more efficiently if you can run the ball.”

During Penn State’s four-game losing streak, the Lions averaged 41 rushing yards per game. Take away a 228-yard performance against overmatched Massachusetts, and the Lions were averaging 55.9 yards heading into the Nov. 8 contest at Indiana.

Fifth-year senior guard Miles Dieffenbach returned that game from an offseason ACL tear. Junior left tackle Donovan Smith came back from a two-game absence against Temple.

Dieffenbach and Smith were the only linemen on PSU’s roster who entered the season with starting experience.

“Having Miles and Donovan back for the game did help a lot,” said sophomore Akeel Lynch, who had a season-high 130 rushing yards against Temple. “But I think the (other, younger linemen) are getting more experience, and the communication between the running backs and linemen is going really well.”

After having none through eight games, Penn State has had a 100-plus-yard rusher during each of the past two (Bill Belton had 137 against Indiana). Take away the UMass game, and the Lions have more rushing yards the past two games (416) than they had in those other prior seven games combined (389).

With senior and 2,000-yard career rusher Zach Zwinak lost for the season because of an injury suffered Oct. 25, the Lions have relied on a Belton/Lynch tandem since. Increasingly, it has been Lynch. With Belton being a senior, Lynch likely will be the featured back in 2015.

Regardless of who is running, PSU recognizes the importance of a consistent rushing game in jump-starting an offense that ranks 13th in the Big Ten.

“Getting the run game on track helps a lot because teams were starting to basically take away the big plays down the field when the run game wasn’t as strong,” receiver DaeSean Hamilton said. “With the run game picking up now, our offense is multi-dimensional now. We don’t have struggles moving the ball.”

Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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