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Penn State ground game re-emerging

Between the interceptions and the sacks and the avalanche of big plays by the Buckeyes last Saturday, a Penn State rushing attack that had been staggering through the middle of the season finally found some traction against a fairly stout Ohio State defense.

Belton put up 98 yards in just over two quarters of action in Columbus.

As the Nittany Lions look to move on from the debacle in Columbus, they'll do so with some restored confidence in their run game.

"We need to understand that running the ball needs to be a staple of our program," right tackle Garry Gilliam said Wednesday.

Penn State picked up 120 yards on 40 carries against Ohio State, but running backs Bill Belton, Akeel Lynch and Zach Zwinak accounted for 141 yards on 36 carries against a defense that hadn't allowed more than 132 rushing yards in seven previous games.

"I thought sometimes we ran the ball pretty well," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "I thought Billy and Akeel got in there and ran the ball well. So I saw some things to build on."

With the exception of the Indiana game (38 runs to 55 pass attempts) and the Michigan game (44 runs to 45 pass attempts) the Nittany Lions have called at least six more running plays than passing plays in each game this season. They're averaging 151.9 yards per game and 3.7 per rush -- and rank 10th in the Big Ten in rushing offense -- but if you subtract the 19 times quarterbacks Christian Hackenberg and Tyler Ferguson have been sacked and the 125 yards in losses, those numbers go up to 169.7 and 4.4, respectively.

Penn State's offensive line got a consistent push against the Buckeye front seven and Belton, showing patience and vision, followed those blocks well.

"The key is to keep building on the performance of Saturday," center Ty Howle said. "And I think we just keep chipping at the boulder, chipping at the ice. Keep going away it, keep working hard."

The Nittany Lions went into Bloomington four weeks ago and churned out just 70 yards on 38 carries against an Indiana defense that had been allowing 248 rushing yards per game. This week it will face an Illinois rushing defense that's given up 219 rushing yards per game on the season and 297.7 yards per game and 12 rushing touchdowns in its three conference games.

Getting the ground game going early would do a number of things for Penn State this Saturday and on future Saturdays, said Gilliam.

"Get the offense some confidence, get some play action passes," he said. "Personally, I wouldn't mind running the ball 60 times per game."

Gilliam laughed a bit at the thought, then added:

"But I understand that some situations call for the pass."

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