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Bill O'Brien isn't a genie, as he likes to say, but he is national Coach of Year at midway point
October 7, 2012 - Cory Giger
Again, I'm not a genie, and I can't tell you how this thing's gonna turn out. But at the end of the day, this is an enjoyable Penn State team to watch, and I can tell you Bill O'Brien has done a heck of a job.
Everybody always did a Joe Paterno voice impression, and the preceding was a verbal homage to all the phrases O'Brien repeatedly says.
Here's another phrase we could be hearing about O'Brien at the end of the season: National Coach of the Year.
He deserves it at the midway point, for many reasons, and not just for coaching up the Nittany Lions and leading them to four consecutive wins following an 0-2 start.
And it doesn't take a genie to predict that if Penn State wins four more games to finish 8-4, O'Brien absolutely will be in the discussion for top coach in the country and very well could win it.
Some national media started the O'Brien campaign Saturday night on Twitter, following the Lions' come-from-behind 39-28 win over No. 24 Northwestern. A sampling of tweets:
* Dennis Dodd, CBSSports.com: "Going to go ahead and say it since PSU is off next week. Halfway through the season, Bill O'Brien. Coach. Of. The. Year."
* College Football Talk: "Penn State comeback gives Bill O'Brien our early Coach of the Year vote."
* ESPN announcer Dave Pasch: "I said it on air--Bill O'Brien should get national coach of the year consideration."
* ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit: "Bill O'Brien early front runner for Big 10 coach of the year with all that he and his team have had to overcome!"
Four wins already. Four more needed to really have a good shot at the honor. Frequently going for it on fourth down. Keeping with that theme, here are four reasons why O'Brien has been the best coach in the country so far:
SUBHD: 1. Circumstances
The fact that Penn State even has a competitive team and didn't lose many, many more transfers after the NCAA sanctions is due largely to O'Brien doing a phenomenal job communicating and motivating the young men on the team to stick it out, have faith in their school, their teammates and their coaching staff and try to show the world that PSU football is not dead.
It's not even debatable: No college coach in the country did a better job from January through August than O'Brien. While everyone from Alabama's Nick Saban to Oregon's Chip Kelly and all other potential coach of the year candidates were fine-tuning their fantastic football teams throughout the spring and summer, O'Brien's main task was simply trying to keep his team together and keep his players focused on football while their lives were filled with incredible turmoil.
SUBHD: 2. Expectations
Virtually no one outside of Happy Valley gave this Penn State team much of a chance to do anything this season, and they appeared to be right after the 0-2 start with losses to Ohio and Virginia.
But as many have pointed out, if not for a tipped pass that bounced right to an Ohio receiver for a TD and a kicker having one of the worst days imaginable, the Lions probably would be 6-0 right now.
The Vegas line entering the season was 5 1/2 wins for PSU. Even Herbstreit said on the air before the season that if the Lions go 7-5, O'Brien might be the national coach of the year.
Penn State will have a chance to win every game remaining on the schedule because of its good offense, strong defense and the overall weakness in the Big Ten. As I've said before, the Lions also could lose to anyone left on the schedule, too, so getting four more wins will be very difficult.
But if they do, they will have far exceeded just about everyone's expectations.
SUBHD: 3. Motivation
This season could have collapsed after the 0-2 start.
Sure, it helped that Navy was the opponent in week three, followed by Temple. Penn State should have won those games easily because it still has much more talent than those teams, and it did.
Going to Illinois and putting a smackdown on the Illini showed that the players still have a fire in their bellies, a fire that has been stoked perfectly since day one by O'Brien.
Saturday's win over Northwestern wasn't a great victory because, well, Northwestern isn't a great team by any stretch. But to look up at the scoreboard and be trailing by 11 points in the fourth quarter and still fight back, that's a testament to everyone's determination.
Maybe there are a lot of teams in the country that could rally from an 11-point deficit against Northwestern. Few, however, could muster that kind of gritty comeback given everything that these PSU players have been through.
SUBHD: 4. Fourth down
This is the ultimate audible by O'Brien. He doesn't really want to be going for it as much as he does on fourth down, but he looks at his kicking game and realize he doesn't have any choice.
Instead of sticking with the tried and true conservative football approach of punting and playing for field position, O'Brien looks like a genius with his devil-may-care approach on fourth down. The Lions have tried more (20) and converted more (13) fourth-down situations than any team in the country, and Saturday's 5-of-6 result produced conversions than enabled them to rally for victory.
O'Brien isn't afraid to think outside the box, and so far it's been working. If it keeps working -- and that's a big if, merely because of the law of averages -- then the coach's gambling ways and the notoriety that comes with them will earn him even more respect as the season goes on.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.