Rich Barnes-US PRESSWIRE
Penn State is 5-2 heading into the biggest game of the season, Saturday's showdown with Ohio State. What is going on with the program? How does the future look?
I have been a Penn State football fan for more than 30 years. I've seen national titles. I've seen overachieving teams that made me incredibly proud. I've seen underachieving teams that made me throw remote controls around like a mad man. I had no idea what to expect heading into the 2012 season.
Gone was Joe Paterno, and all the trappings that came with him. Several players transferred. The team lost some good players to graduation. There was still talent in place, but a whole new coaching staff and lots of mystery. I wondered back in the summer if I would still feel the same about my Nittany Lions after last year's horrific discoveries.
I watched the season opener with as much curiosity as anything. Would I like the new offense and defense? What would I think of Bill O'Brien? What kind of interesting changes would he make? Gerald Hodges as the punt returner wasn't exactly what I had in mind and it proved to be a major mistake. Was O'Brien insane? I was quiet for much of the game, but as things fell apart I began to yell at the TV. At some point I realized that was good...I still cared.
I think all Penn State fans felt a sense of shame as we heard the stories in late 2011 and early 2012. Our idols had done some terrible things, whether through action or inaction. All the pride we took in the Penn State way disappeared in record time. It was like a nuclear blast destroyed it and any remnants of it. The slate was wiped completely clean.
The NCAA came down hard on the program. I think they were overly harsh, since the people being punished were innocent players and a new coaching staff, but that is a moot point. The penalties were handed down. You simply had to accept them. In a way, the harshness might have turned out to be a good thing. There were some in the media who stood up for Penn State. Prior to that, it felt like there was a national contest to see who could show the most moral outrage at Penn State. After the sanctions, the conversation on Penn State football was less one-sided. This isn't to say that Paterno and Jerry Sandusky were less hated, but they were not the focus of every story. You could now actually talk about the team and not the crimes.
Shifting the focus from crimes, investigations, and trials to actual football was a good thing for sure, even though not all the news was good. It was discouraging to see players like Silas Redd, Anthony Fera, and Justin Brown leave for greener pastures. I couldn't hate them. They didn't come to State College expecting to be in an unprecedented situation. I did like the way that seniors Mike Mauti and Mike Zordich handled things. They did their best to get as many players as possible to stay and showed great leadership.
I loved the way O'Brien handled things. He didn't cry that some guys left. He focused on the players who stayed. There would be no "woe is us" mentality with him in charge. Sure he hated to lose talented players, but O'Brien was once an assistant on some really bad Duke teams. The Penn State roster probably looked like the '85 Bears compared to some of those squads. There was definitely enough talent to win with. It was up to him and the coaches to teach the new systems and make the players believe that this team could win. Should win. Would win.
The 0-2 start was frustrating to say the least. The Nittany Lions should have won both games, but found ways to lose. That's when I started to doubt. I had faith in O'Brien as the right fit for Penn State, but wondered if this team was just too messed up to win now. Navy and Temple were next on the schedule. These were games that the team had to win. They did. That got them back to 2-2. There were still enough flaws to keep you from being confident, but getting back to .500 was huge.
Illinois was up next in the Big Ten opener. This was an emotional game since Illinois had sent coaches to State College to try to recruit players to leave. That was a huge slap in the face of O'Brien and the PSU program. I wanted a win, but also wanted O'Brien to make it personal if he could. Let Illinois know to stay the heck away in the future. While I may have wanted that to happen, I sure wasn't expecting it. That was my heart talking, not my brain. Penn State played well and did win the game 35-7. That was the first game all year that really felt fun. The offense moved the ball and scored. The defense made big plays. It was nice to see the team look really good in a conference game.
Northwestern was the next team to come to town. The Wildcats were undefeated and playing good football. They are always a spirited bunch against Penn State and had come close to winning a couple of times in recent years. Northwestern wasn't at its best, but built a 28-17 lead in the third quarter thanks to turnovers and a long punt return touchdown. O'Brien never got down on his guys. He kept them focused and they dominated the fourth quarter, 22-0. Penn State won 39-28. It wasn't a pretty win, but it was a beautiful win, if that makes sense. There were far too many mistakes, but the team made clutch plays and never panicked. You wish the guys didn't make the mistakes and played a clean game, but the fact they were able to overcome them was beautiful.
Last week the Nittany Lions went to Iowa. The Hawkeyes have been a nemesis for more than a decade so this game had the makings of a tough road test. Hardly. Penn State's defense was dominant. Iowa finished the game with 209 yards and 14 points. Both touchdowns came in the fourth quarter. Most of the yards came in the second half, when the game was long since over. PSU had 24 points and 328 yards at halftime. The offense moved the chains, mixed in some big plays, and delivered points. Iowa had been a house of horrors for a long time. I don't even want to re-visit some of the blown leads and bizarre losses. It was good to see PSU win so decisively, 38-14.
So Penn State sits at 5-2 heading into the biggest game of the year, Ohio State. The schedule hasn't been daunting so let's not mistake this for some great PSU team, but they are playing good football. You can make a good argument that the team should be 7-0. The most encouraging signs for me are that the team continues to improve and that O'Brien has gotten Matt McGloin to play like a pretty good quarterback. Let's start with McGloin. Anyone who watched him for the past two years had moments where they both loved and hated him. He was tough and scrappy. He would also make incredibly dumb decisions and do things to make you go nuts. This year the bad decisions are way, way down. He still makes some poor throws, but that's due to the fact he's just not a physically gifted player. He's not John Elway or Kerry Collins or even Michael Robinson.
McGloin has 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. Heck, he's even run for five touchdowns. That might be the craziest stat in all of college football. You can see marked improvement in McGloin. He is getting a chance to throw the ball on a regular basis and is doing a good job. He seems to finally be getting the hang of O'Brien's offense. McGloin still drives me crazy at least once every game, but you can't deny the progress he's made under O'Brien. That is huge for convincing quarterback prospects to come to Penn State. One reason the team has faded from being a title contender in recent years is the lack of top quarterback play. O'Brien's coaching could do wonders in this department.
The overall team gets better each week. This shows that the new coaching staff is doing a good job. College football is all about player development. Just look at Boise State as the prime example. They don't get a ton of four star recruits, but they produce plenty of outstanding players. They get kids who are coachable and they have a staff that knows how to develop those players.
Reduced scholarships in the next few years will be a huge blow to Penn State. One way to get through that is by making sure the coaches can develop the players. You can't afford many misses with less overall talent coming in. Look at receiver Allen Robinson. I had no idea he existed prior to September. Now he looks like a star player. He had three receptions in 2011. Right now he's 19th in the nation in receptions per game. The team's leading rusher is Zach Zwinak, another guy I was unaware of. Both he and Robinson are sophomores so it isn't like they sat for years, but how many times in the past did sophomores come from nowhere to be key players for Penn State? Not often, that I can think of.
The last five games of the year are going to be a major test for O'Brien and the Nittany Lions. Ohio State, Nebraska, and Wisconsin are tough teams. Purdue and Indiana have each come close to pulling off major upsets this year. I won't be shocked if Penn State goes 10-2, 9-3, or 8-4. I would be very surprised if they only finished 7-5, barring some crazy injuries. I think the team is playing too well to finish worse than 3-2 in the final five games.
What does the future look like? That's the hardest question of them all. At least 10 key guys are seniors and will head off at the end of this year. Younger players will be allowed to transfer if they so desire. This is where things get tricky. Will the excitement of playing for Coach O'Brien and PSU be enough to keep guys around? Will players want to go play in a bowl and leave for another team? I'd love to say everyone will stay, but that's my heart talking again and not my brain. The key here will be to retain as many top players as possible. I do not anticipate a mass exodus. One thing I think O'Brien can do is point to players who left and how they're doing.
Allen Robinson is having a better year than Justin Brown. He has 47 catches to just 24 for Brown. Robinson has eight touchdowns to just a pair for Brown. Silas Redd is 56th in the nation in rushing. Last year he was 16th at PSU. Did he really benefit from leaving? Anthony Fera has been hurt and Texas isn't exactly having a banner season. Devon Smith, who was reportedly kicked off the team, hasn't caught a pass this season for Marshall. Staying put sure looks like the safer bet.
There will be some tough times ahead with the reduced scholarships. O'Brien's time at Duke could help in this situation. He's had to deal with uphill battles before. Some coaches from elite programs are spoiled by consistently having better talent. O'Brien has been part of that side, but knows the flip side as well. He understands the importance of developing players. O'Brien also isn't afraid to play young guys. That will be important in the next three years.
I have to think high school players and their families are impressed by O'Brien and the job he's doing at Penn State. Convincing them to come to State College won't be easy, but the lure of being a Nittany Lion will help with a lot of prospects. O'Brien has sure sold me on sticking with the program.
Some fans were disappointed that Penn State didn't land a bigger coach to run the program, but I think O'Brien has everyone's full support right now. No matter what the final record for this season, O'Brien, his staff, and the players have a lot to be proud of. This team has done things the right way and restored some pride to Penn State football. For that, I'm eternally grateful.
Now go win on Saturday...or else!!! (I kid, I kid.)