It took just one carry on Saturday to see that something was still wrong with Bill Belton. On Tuesday, his coach conceded that that tailback wasn't fully healed from an apparent high ankle sprain.
"I think that probably Billy's not 100 percent," Bill O'Brien said on the Big Ten coaches teleconference. O'Brien did not have his usual weekly press conference because Penn State has an open date this weekend. "I think that was a significant ankle injury that he had against Ohio. I think that was a high ankle injury. So he was out and he hadn't played running back (much since) we moved him there in the spring."
The injury he suffered back in the season-opener hasn't taken away his shiftiness. On his first rush against Northwestern, he cut hard back against the grain on a play flowing right and had plenty of green in front of him as he charged back to the left.
Only the sophomore couldn't quite get to the corner. And what looked to be a big-gainer was cut off by the defense after 10 yards.
During preseason camp, Belton flashed his speed. A video the team released from a scrimmage showed Belton flying past the first-team defense after getting a similar open field in front of him.
Belton had just three more carries against the Wildcats, gaining just 2 more yards before the Nittany Lions went with Zach Zwinak for the bulk of the game.
Afterward, O'Brien said he didn't think Belton's ankle was bothering him. Belton sat out three games before returning two weeks ago against Illinois, rushing for 65 yards.
He said after that game and then before facing Northwestern that he was back to full strength.
"Sunday morning (after the Illinois game) my ankle felt great," Belton said last week. "Just rehab with the guys in the training room. I basically stay with them throughout all my time and did anything I could possibly to get back on the field."
But coaches quickly recognized against Northwestern that he wasn't at full speed, leading to him spending most of the afternoon on the sideline.
O'Brien said the off week will hopefully allow him to have a bigger role when the Lions return to the field on Oct. 20 at Iowa.
"It's a new offense and he was out for a few weeks," O'Brien said. "He comes back and now he's trying to get back in the groove of things. Billy's a good football player and, this week, starting (Monday), he's practiced hard.
"I do think this bye week will help him heal, but also get back into the rhythm of the offense."
After Saturday's comeback win, the national narrative has shifted on O'Brien and this year's team. Some of the same pundits who wondered aloud if Penn State would win three games in 2012 have begun talking about O'Brien as a coach of the year candidate.
Not that O'Brien wants to hear it.
The rookie head coach bristled at the mention of it, even without an opponent to focus on for this weekend.
"There's a lot of great coaches in this country. I've only coached six games my whole career," O'Brien said. "That's the farthest thing from my mind."
Asked about the transition from being a lifelong assistant coach to running a program himself, O'Brien likened it to "drinking water from a fire hose.
"Something new happens every day. You have to budget your time and do the best that you can."
Now at the halfway point of his first season, O'Brien called the Lions' upcoming stretch of games a "murderer's row."
Though the next opponent, Iowa, struggled in September, the game is on the road and in primetime. Penn State then plays Ohio State and on the road at Purdue and at Nebraska before closing out at home against Indiana and Wisconsin. The Indiana game is likely to be the only one where the Lions are a decisive favorite.
"We have a long way to go. We're 4-2 and, as I said, we have the meat of our schedule right here," O'Brien said. "This is going to be a very, very tough stretch for us."
Penn State at Iowa
TV: 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 20. Big Ten Network.