Bill Belton began his final Penn State football season with high hopes and a goal of proving himself as one of the Big Ten's best running backs to those who did not include him on their preseason top-10 lists.
The 2014 season, however, didn't pan out the way Belton wanted or expected. Trying to find running room for 12 games through an inexperienced and inconsistent offensive line, the South Jersey native rushed for just 518 yards, a major drop-off from his 803 yards the previous year.
"There are other things that go into it, so I'm doing what I can do," Belton said. "This year turned out the way it did, but I didn't do anything different. I worked hard. I did everything I possibly could before the season to put myself in the best position, so there are a lot of parts that go into it. We've just got to keep working."
The former Winslow Township High School star insisted that he wasn't disappointed at not reaching his preseason goals and that he wanted to go out on a positive note Saturday when the Nittany Lions play Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium.
In fact, Penn State coaches said Belton maintained a team-first attitude and worked closely with Akeel Lynch, a redshirt sophomore who received the bulk of the carries in the Nittany Lions' final two games and led the team in rushing.
"My job is to help him prepare for the games," Belton said. "I did a good job of doing that. I've always said that I thought Akeel was a good running back. He does a lot of things well. I think he's going to have a bright future here and be one of the best backs that came through here."
Penn State running backs coach Charles Huff said Belton handled his reduced playing time well late in the season.
"One thing a lot of people don't see is that he's probably Akeel's biggest fan and biggest mentor," Huff said. "When Akeel comes off the field, [Bill] is getting right to him. He brings things like, 'Hey, watch the safety blitz there.' He's handled it well. That's a true sign of a mature, older guy that's been through a lot on and off the field here."
Belton impressed again in the regular-season finale against Michigan State, when he switched from his usual No. 1 jersey to No. 28 to honor fellow senior Zach Zwinak, who suffered a season-ending leg injury Oct. 25 vs. Ohio State.
Belton's season highlight was his 92-yard touchdown run in November against Indiana, the only Lions touchdown in their 13-7 victory, and a season-high 137 yards on 16 carries. He followed that with a 92-yard effort on 19 carries against Temple and looked forward to a strong finish in his team's last two games.
However, Belton rushed for only 9 yards on seven carries combined against Illinois and Michigan State. He got just one carry against the Spartans for 3 yards.
Belton arguably was Penn State's most versatile back. He picked up blitzes well. A wide receiver during his freshman year, he was the team's best pass-catcher out of the backfield, finishing with 23 catches this year. When he could find running room, he was able to capably elude would-be tacklers.
Now he gets one more opportunity.
"Every game is important," Belton said. "It's not just one game that defines you as a player. But it's the last game for me as a player here, so I'm just trying to make the most of it."