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A really good catch


February 17. 2013 8:10AM


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STATE COLLEGE -- He's already proven to be viable threat while running with the football.


But who knew Zach Zwinak was so capable catching it?


Certainly not him.


You see, Zwinak came to Penn State as a fullback who was more accustomed to having the football placed against his belly than thrown against his chest. And since he wasn't naturally gifted with the art of grabbing passes, he feared his body would be a repellent to balls thrown his way.


"At my high school, we didn't really throw the ball much," Zwinak said. "I didn't have any confidence in my hands. They were like brick walls."


Somehow, they softened, and not a minute too soon for the Nittany Lions.


Zwinak pulled in six passes for 52 yards -- second on the team Saturday -- while helping Penn State come back for a 39-28 victory over previously-unbeaten Northwestern.


Most importantly, he didn't drop one.


Mainly because he spent one long summer snaring hurtling objects.


"Tennis balls, footballs from jugs machines, (from) quarterbacks, seven-on-sevens," Zwinak said, rattling off all the drills he endured this past summer. "I needed it. I was really bad."


Now, he's really good.


The six catches Zwinak made against Northwestern came in handy and complemented his 121-yard rushing day.


"Zach's one of the hardest-working guys on the team, and one of the strongest," said Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin, a West Scranton High School grad. "I was proud of Zach, what he did today. He really focused on his (pass) protection and got out in the passing game. He had five or six catches, which was great to see."


It was even better when the Nittany Lions were watching Zwinak run with the ball.


He ran four times for 32 yards on Penn State's 40-yard scoring march in the second quarter, including an 11-yard burst and a drive-culminating 1-yard plunge over the goal line for the game's first touchdown.


Zwinak didn't start the game -- it's always a competition during the week of practice for playing time and starting roles in Penn State's backfield -- but he sure finished it with a flourish. Penn State shied away from Saturday's starting tailback Bill Belton through the second half, and relied on Zwinak to help overcome a deficit that reached 11 points.


"Zach, we felt, was running the ball downhill," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "We felt his physical presence in this type of game was something we wanted to go with."


So the Lions went with Zwinak again and again.


The red-shirt sophomore running back took six handoffs for 37 yards and added a six-yard catch to cover more than half the yardage on an 80-yard touchdown drive that lifted the Lions into a 17-14 lead midway through the third quarter.


Zwinak also gained 15 yards on the ground and added 26 more yards on three catches during a touchdown drive that pulled Penn State within three points midway through the final quarter, and added a 16-yard rush on the Lions' go-ahead touchdown march.


"It's a confidence-builder," Zwinak said. "The coach trusts you enough to go in and make the plays. I go into each game hoping I'll get a play or two. Whoever's making the plays, he's going to keep calling your number. We have a lot of great running backs. I'm happy they allow me to do it."


Said O'Brien, "We always try to achieve some type of balance."


After working double-duty to provide balance between Penn State's running and passing games, it's a wonder Zwinak didn't start wobbling.


With his 34 touches Saturday, Zwinak handled the ball almost as much as McGloin and center Matt Stankiewitch -- who exchange every offensive snap.


"I'm hurting, too, a little bit right now," Zwinak said with a grin. "Just sore."


But it's the kind of pain he worked to achieve during a summer of sweat he endured with hopes of playing a bigger part in Penn State's offense.


"It feels great," Zwinak said, "but I can't do it alone."


Maybe he can, if Saturday was any indication of how his game is starting to grow.




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