STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — With his head down and shoulders square on his bruising 6-foot-1 frame, running back Michael Zordich can strike an imposing pose before he collides with a defender. The brown hair hanging out of his white helmet just adds to the look of intimidation.
Penn State's new-look passing game might get all the attention, but Zordich's emergence on the ground has added another threat to the rushing attack. His hard-nosed running style epitomizes the blue-collar mentality espoused by the team's senior leaders in the first year of coach Bill O'Brien's rebuilding project in Happy Valley.
"You know that every game you have something to play for. With no bowl game to play for or championship ... every Saturday is our time when we get out there," Zordich said after a 24-13 victory Saturday over Temple evened Penn State's record at 2-2.
The Nittany Lions travel to Illinois next weekend to open Big Ten play.
"At this point, we're just playing for the guys that four years from now will be able to compete" in the postseason, Zordich said.
The back story, by now, is, familiar.
The NCAA levied landmark sanctions in July on Penn State for the school's handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. A four-year postseason ban and steep scholarship cuts were the biggest blows to players and a new head coach who had nothing to do with the turmoil.
Amid speculation about how many Nittany Lions would take advantage of an NCAA exception to transfer right away, Zordich and linebacker Michael Mauti stepped up to re-affirm their commitments to Penn State, surrounded by about two dozen more players.
In the end, more than 90 percent of the team stayed, though the departures of tailback Silas Redd, receiver Justin Brown and punter/kicker Anthony Fera hurt.
O'Brien pressed ahead, and the phrase "Next man up" became a team mantra. It's a phrase especially befitting for the offensive backfield, where injuries have taken a toll.
The presumed starter for Redd, sophomore Bill Belton, has been sidelined the last three games by a left ankle injury. Second-string tailback Derek Day went down two weeks ago with a left shoulder injury.
Junior Curtis Dukes, who ran for 47 yards on 11 carries last week against Navy, sat out the Temple game with a thigh injury. Zordich was handling the load just fine against Temple until he left with a bruised left knee in the fourth quarter.
Zordich finished with career highs of 15 carries for 75 yards. It appears that Zordich, normally a fullback, should be fine for next week's Big Ten opener at Illinois after he ices down the knee.