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Nov. 3, 2013
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Bill Belton sounded like a different person when he talked about the buildup for the 2013 season back in the spring.
Each time he was asked about his expectations for the season, he always said the same thing. Belton wanted to do anything necessary to help the team. He didn't care how many carries he was going to get on any given Saturday. He didn't care how many touchdowns he would score.
All Belton wanted to do was work hard during offseason conditioning and on the practice field to play any role necessary to help the team win come Saturdays this season.
As training camp progressed, Belton had the look of a player destined for a big season on the Nittany Lion offense. Arguably the most improved player on Penn State's roster, on and off the field, Belton played his best game in Blue and White on Saturday afternoon during Penn State's 24-17 overtime victory over Illinois.
The numbers speak for themselves. The junior running back tallied 201 rushing yards, the most since Larry Johnson had 279 against Michigan State in 2002, on 36 carries. He also scored a five-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
Aside from a fumble at the goal line on Penn State's second-to-last possession in regulation, Belton's day was flawless. Minutes after rushing for more than 200 yards for the first time in his career, the first thing Belton did in the locker room after head coach Bill O'Brien addressed the team?
He walked from locker to locker of the defensive players, which are located near the front of the locker room, to thank them for their efforts in giving the team a chance to win after his fumble. The same can be said about kicker Sam Ficken, who nailed a 35-yard field goal with 41 seconds left to send the game into overtime.
The second thing Belton did after the game?
He thanked the offensive line for its effort up front.
"I want to thank the defense and Sam Ficken," Belton said. "They basically saved the game. All the credit goes to them and the offensive line. I just came out and played my game today. The offensive line did a great job."
Belton's actions after the game were genuine in every sense of the word. The New Jersey native has always been a talented athlete, but not until this year did everything, on and off the field, begin to click for Belton.
"He has really turned the corner in a lot of areas, on and off the field. He is doing better in school and he is become a better running back," Belton said. "He is a guy that we moved to running back when we came here. He was a receiver and it is not easy to make that move. It takes a while to learn how to play that position. I think he has done a very good job. He is a tough runner."
It's hard to fault Belton for trying to make a play at the end of regulation when he reached for the goal line and fumbled inches shy of a go ahead touchdown. But he took full responsibility, and he vows to improve.
"That was my fault. I made a mistake. I shouldn't have reached the ball out," Belton said. "I was being too greedy. I should have just kept playing. That was my fault. I won't allow myself to make stupid mistakes like that again."
As O'Brien always preaches to the team, despite the fumble, Belton played the next play. He came right back with two carries on each of Penn State's last two drives, the final drive in regulation and one in overtime, before Christian Hackenberg found Kyle Carter for the game-winning score.
"I think that's a situation where Billy felt bad, but he had a hell of a game," O'Brien said. "I think our kids do a good job playing the next play, I really do."
Prior to the Michigan game, Belton's career-high in number of carries in a game was 16 (vs. Illinois and Iowa last season). In the last three games, Belton has 27, 22 and 36 carries, respectively, for 384 yards (128.0 ypg).
With a new mindset, Saturday's performance may just be a sign that the talented Belton is just getting started.
"Billy B. makes us look good. He did a fantastic job. I'm proud to have him as our running back," senior John Urschel said.