Lions Go Old School on Temple

Michael Zordich

A fullback-driven power running game complements the new passing attack in Penn State's 24-13 victory over the Owls at Beaver Stadium.

Bill O'Brien made his bones as a passing guru. Penn State, his new employer, had heretofore been known as a running team. Perhaps you heard.

The twain met Saturday afternoon in Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions gave Temple a little Tom Brady, a little Tom Donchez.

The end result was their annual victory over the Owls, this time by a 24-13 score.

Matt McGloin threw for a career-high 318 yards and a touchdown. He also generated Penn State's first two rushing TDs of the season, though the ground game was highlighted by two heavy-legged backs in the mold of Donchez, a grinder from the '70s.

Michael Zordich, a 6-foot-1, 236-pound senior fullback, ran 15 times for 75 yards -- thereby eclipsing his one-week-old career high by 25 -- before departing after three quarters with an injured left knee.

Enter Zach Zwinak, a 6-1, 232-pound reserve fullback, who ran 11 times for 57 yards in the fourth quarter, 18 times for 94 in all. Before Saturday, the redshirt sophomore had rushed six times for nine yards in his career.

In all, the Lions, 2-2 after their second straight victory, gained a season-high 173 yards on the ground, on 42 attempts. The 491 yards they had in total offense were another high -- their previous best was 352 -- and allowed them to overcome 100 yards on nine penalties.

They officially earned their 23rd straight victory over Temple, and improved their all-time record against the Owls to 31-3-1. Unofficially, it's 30 straight and 38-3-1, respectively, but that includes seven victories vacated in the wake of the NCAA sanctions meted out in July. Either way, Temple has not beaten Penn State since 1941.

And what of the melding of something old and something new? Of smashmouth and stiletto?

“(O'Brien) said since he got here that we need to be a balanced offense,” Zordich said of the first-year head coach, who in his previous stop had served as the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator -- and thus worked with Brady.

“We need to be able to run the ball when we need to run the ball, and we need to be able to pass the ball when we need to pass,” Zordich said. “He doesn't want to be a team where we're 70 percent passing and 30 percent running, because it's not really heard of in this conference.”

Indeed, O'Brien said Saturday what he has said at other times -- that the Lions will employ a “game-plan offense.” That they will do “whatever it takes to win.”

But in their first three games they had passed it 112 times, and run it 92 (for just 323 yards, and 3.5 per carry). While not exactly Andy Reid-like, that's probably not the ratio O'Brien is seeking. And it is certainly not the success rate.

On Saturday McGloin countered those 42 rushes with 36 passes, completing 24. His TD was a 41-yarder to the ever-dangerous Allen Robinson in the first quarter. His scoring runs were 1- and 2-yarders in the second and third period, respectively.

“I definitely think it was one of the better games of my career,” McGloin said, before sharing the credit with his line and receivers.

But the backs were just as big a story. Zordich also caught four passes for 39 yards, and after one reception, in the second quarter, made the ill-advised decision to try to hurdle Temple safety Vaughn Carraway. One problem -- Carraway didn't duck his head, and wound up catching Zordich around the legs and throwing him to the ground. (Much of that gain was wiped out by a penalty anyway.)

Zordich suffered his injury when he was tackled by defensive back Tavon Young on the next-to-last play of the third period.

“He's a tough kid,” O'Brien said. “I'd say he'd probably spit on it and be all right.”

But Zordich was whisked out of the media room in mid-interview by the trainers after the game. Make of that what you will.

Zordich, who before last week's 11-carry, 50-yard effort against Navy had only carried 38 times for 91 yards in his career, has been pressed into service as a feature back because of injuries to the Lions' top two tailbacks, Bill Belton (ankle) and Derek Day (shoulder). Day is expected to be available for next week's Big Ten opener at Illinois, but either way, O'Brien said, it's going to be “more of a running back by committee” from here on out.

Zwinak seemingly earned a spot in the rotation with his effort. Coming out of Linganore High in Frederick, Md., three years ago, he was the top-rated fullback in the country. But time has been hard to come by; he was behind Zordich and Joe Suhey last year, and Zordich now.

And while he looked slow and uncertain while being stopped for no gain on his lone first-half carry Saturday, he got up to speed in the second half.

In the process, he took Penn State back to the future. He said he had had little awareness of Penn State's run-oriented past growing up, but found out about it when Joe Paterno and Co. began recruiting him.

“It's nice to see them still do that today,” he said.

It had a familiar look to guys like senior linebacker Michael Mauti, whose dad, Rich, was in fact a teammate of Donchez's back in the day. (And Zordich's dad, also Michael, played safety here in the 80s, meaning the younger Zordich is also well-versed in the old ways.)

Then again, it wasn't too hard to find a point of reference.

“How 'bout last year?” Mauti asked.

You know, Silas Redd. Paterno. Again, you've probably heard.

“We needed to establish our running game,” Mauti said. “That was a big point in Coach O'Brien's deal. I think we did that pretty successfully. … Any time a fullback gets to run the ball, you know they're excited. You know they're going to run hard. Through the course of the game it really does wear down on the defense. I think that's what you saw happen today.”

Among other things.

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