The players had predicted this. They saw it coming in the summer when they were asked to run more than ever, change their lifting routine and even take swings at tractor tires with sledgehammers.
Under an entirely overhauled strength program, Penn State believed the results would pay off as the season went along, helping the Nittany Lions take control of games in the second half.
That‚??s exactly what has happened in two Big Ten contests, as the Lions managed to wear down Illinois and Northwestern in the fourth quarter and win both. On Saturday, they outscored the Wildcats 22-0 in the final 15 minutes.
‚??I‚??m going to tell you right now -- it‚??s due to (strength and conditioning coach Craig) Fitzgerald and the strength staff,‚?Ě quarterback Matt McGloin said. ‚??It‚??s what we did throughout camp. What we did throughout the summer. What we still do during the weeks.
‚??We‚??re in better shape than every team we play. So they get tired over there while we still continue to push.‚?Ě
Fitzgerald, whom coach Bill O‚??Brien brought in shortly after hiring his assistant coaches, is talked about reverently by the players, who credit him for all sorts of improvements on the field.
During games, he‚??s hard to miss on the sideline. When the Lions return to Beaver Stadium at the end of the month for a night game against Ohio State, Fitzgerald will be the one still wearing shorts and a T-shirt that reads ‚??IRON LION‚?Ě on the front and ‚??DOMINATOR‚?Ě on the back.
‚??I turned Fitzy into a rock star,‚?Ě O‚??Brien joked earlier this season. ‚??I was busting his chops about that the other day. But he‚??s got a unique ability and great knowledge of strength training, Olympic lifting, conditioning, speed and quickness, and how to get that improved. Then he‚??s got that ability to really coach the guys and challenge them. Coach them hard, but teach them.‚?Ě
It hasn‚??t been a completely smooth transition, of course. The Lions were particularly sluggish on both sides of the ball after halftime in that opening loss to Ohio.
But players said Saturday they believe it will serve them well headed into the second half of the season. Penn State enters an off week on a four-game winning streak before returning to the field Oct. 20 at Iowa.
O‚??Brien has been fond of saying recently, ‚??I‚??m not a genie. I don‚??t know where we‚??ll be at the end of the year.‚??
He tacked on an addendum to that on Saturday.
‚??There‚??s no quit in that locker room,‚?Ě he said. ‚??I don‚??t know what‚??s going to happen the rest of the year, but there will be no quit with those kids that are sitting in the locker room.‚?Ě
As much as the numbers have suggested otherwise, O‚??Brien said he still doesn‚??t have a feature back.
Sophomore Zach Zwinak turned in his third straight solid rushing game on Saturday, setting career-highs in yards (121) and carries (28) while adding a touchdown. In the last three games, all wins, Zwinak has 315 yards.
But he doesn‚??t have the starting job. At least, not officially.
‚??It‚??s definitely game-by-game,‚?Ě O‚??Brien said. ‚??It‚??s hard to put three or four tailbacks in the game at the same time, that‚??s just the way it goes. Zach has played well, but that‚??s a competition every week to see who‚??s going to play, who‚??s going to start.‚?Ě
Sophomore Bill Belton, anointed the starter at the opening of preseason camp, has started the last two games in the backfield after returning from an ankle injury.
Early against Northwestern, however, Belton wasn‚??t showing the burst of speed that made him stand out in the offseason.
He ended up with just four carries for 12 yards against the Wildcats and was on the sideline, healthy, for the entire second half.
‚??I don‚??t think his ankle‚??s bothering him,‚?Ě O‚??Brien said. ‚??We felt Zach was running the ball downhill and felt his physical presence in the game. This type of a game, it was something we wanted to go with.
‚??It‚??s nothing against Bill Belton, he‚??s a very good football player. There‚??s only one ball, and we‚??re a one-back team primarily. ‚?Ľ Billy‚??s a team player and understands his role. He‚??ll come to practice next week, competing for his role.‚?Ě
For the first time this season, Penn State appeared in the latest AP poll. But barely.
The Lions received exactly one vote to appear at the very bottom of the ‚??others receiving votes‚?Ě category.
Cecil Hurt, who covers Alabama for The Tuscaloosa News, was the voter responsible, placing the Lions at No. 25 on his ballot.
‚??I know Ohio beat them,‚?Ě Hurt wrote on Twitter, ‚??but can‚??t think of any team who has overcome more to be 4-2.‚?Ě
NCAA sanctions prevent Penn State from receiving votes in the coaches poll.
In just O‚??Brien‚??s sixth game as head coach, Penn State tied an all-time school record on Saturday by running 99 plays on offense.
That equaled a mark set on Oct. 22, 1966, in a win at West Virginia.
It was Joe Paterno‚??s sixth game as head coach.
8 p.m. Oct. 20