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PSU has had element of surprise on everyone, from Big Ten foes to Vegas oddsmakers and gamblers

October 24, 2012 - Cory Giger
UNIVERSITY PARK -- Penn State has surprised everyone, and coach Bill O'Brien is such a wild card with his aggressive playcalling and NASCAR offense that no one has been able to figure out what the Nittany Lions are capable of just yet.

That includes other Big Ten coaches such as Kirk Ferentz, who was completely unprepared for the buzzsaw that ripped his Iowa team apart last week, and extends to Vegas oddsmakers, gamblers and the general public.

The Penn State football program of yesteryear no longer exists, and this new version gives O'Brien and his players a significant advantage when it comes to the element of surprise.

"Any time you get a new offense and you have new schemes it's going to surprise people," PSU running back Michael Zordich said.

Penn State's NASCAR offense certainly has done that, lighting up Illinois for 35 points, Northwestern for 39 and Iowa for 38 to go 3-0 in the Big Ten. The Lions aren't just going no-huddle, they're airing it out like never before.

Matt McGloin already has had games with 51 pass attempts (Northwestern) and 48 attempts (Ohio), plus he's thrown at least 35 times in three other games. He leads the Big Ten in passing (255 yards per game) and is averaging 23 completions per game.

"You're having fun out there, you're making plays, you're enjoying the game overall," McGloin said of the NASCAR attack.

Most importantly, the quarterback added, is that "right now is when we're hitting our stride midway through the season with it."

"It's definitely a lot of fun to play in," Zordich said.

O'Brien acknowledged that trying to figure out teams with a new coach or new philosophies presents an added challenge for opponents, on offense and defense.

"What film do you watch?" he said. "Do you watch New England film? Do you watch Auburn film [where Ted Roof was defensive coordinator]?"

Opposing coaches knew O'Brien would try to install a Patriots type of offense, but they had no idea McGloin and the NASCAR would be so effective.

Teams probably had little reason to expect much from Penn State after it lost to Ohio and Virginia. College football fans didn't either.

Expectations for Penn State were low from the outset, with oddsmakers setting the over/under for wins this season at 5 1/2. The Lions will surpass that in week eight if they can beat Ohio State on Saturday.

"That really at the start of the year looked like a crippled team with a new coach with a new system," said Altoona native Tony Sinisi, who spent more than two decades establishing Las Vegas gaming lines and now works for

Losing the first two games only reinforced to the oddsmakers and gamblers that the Lions did not have a strong team.

"There was a huge negative gaming reaction to all the defections early in the year, when they lost their players, [then] they didn't play well against Ohio," Sinisi said.

Something unusual happened, though, after the loss at Virginia. The Lions figured things out offensively and defensively and now are nowhere close to the team they were the first two weeks.

Usually the best indication of a team's chances can be found in point spreads. The folks in Vegas rarely miss by big margins since their calculations can cause millions of dollars to change hands.

However, the Vegas lines have been way, way off on Penn State pretty much all season. The Lions are 6-1 against the point spread, and they've obliterated the lines several times (such as being 3-point underdogs at Illinois and winning by 28, and being 1 1/2-point underdogs at Iowa and winning by 24).

"There was a negative market perception of Penn State, more so with the betting public than the line makers," Sinisi said.

That likely had to do with a public backlash against Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The Lions did go 9-3 in the regular season last year, and despite losing running back Silas Redd, kicker Anthony Fera and others, they returned a number of very talented players.

Still, it appears many people either seemed convinced Penn State wasn't very good, or they perhaps wanted Penn State to not be very good as a punishment for the scandal.

"One thing that does strike me is the betting public moved the number against them in about 70 percent of their games, so it's more of the betting public's perception negatively about Penn State than the line makers themselves," Sinisi said.

The issue at hand now, though, is that the Lions no longer will be able to surprise people. There's already a growing sense that the team is much better than most expected, and there's also proof in the game film.

"We have a lot of game film out there now," Zordich said of the NASCAR offense, "so teams are ready for it, teams are preparing for it, they know what to expect. ... I wouldn't say it surprises them anymore."

Vegas oddsmakers might not be surprised any longer, either.

"I think there was a correction this week against Ohio State," Sinisi said. "I think if you make that line a month ago, that's probably Ohio State [favored by] maybe 4 1/2 up to 6, and that game's basically a pick right now."


PSU vs. Vegas

The Lions are 6-1 against the point spread this season, winning six in a row after failing to cover in a loss to Ohio. Only Utah State (8-0), Northwestern (7-1) and Fresno State (7-1) have fared better against the line. A look back (with odds from

Opponent......PSU line......Result

Ohio...............-6............L 24-14

Virginia.........+10...........L 17-16

Navy............-6.5..........W 34-7

Temple..........-7............W 24-13

Illinois...........+3............W 35-7

Northwestern....-3............W 39-28

Iowa................+1.5..........W 38-14

Note: The Lions have covered in their six wins by a combined 98 points.

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