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Rudel: O'Brien thrown a learning curve


October 28, 2012
By Neil Rudel ( , The Altoona Mirror

UNIVERSITY PARK - One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching Bill O'Brien coach over the first seven games of the season has been his reckless, gambling style that has accompanied a wide-open offense, the likes of which Penn State fans have never seen.

It has been the polar opposite of Joe Paterno, whose outstanding career was built around defense and special teams.

Paterno was often content - even against a team with less talent - to play a field-position game, rely on the punter and patiently wait for the opponent to make the critical mistake in the fourth quarter.

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It happened repeatedly en route to 409 wins, no matter what the NCAA thinks.

Saturday night against an Ohio State team that was superior to the Nittany Lions and yet certainly beatable presented an on-the-job training session that O'Brien admittedly failed.

Sorting out the aftermath of a 35-23 smackdown in which the Buckeyes led by three touchdowns twice in the second half, O'Brien didn't take long to pin the blame squarely on himself.

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Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski
Penn State linebacker Mike Hull wraps up Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller during the Buckeyes’ 35-23 victory Saturday night at Beaver Stadium.

Paterno, to his credit, often did the same thing.

"It starts with me," O'Brien said. "I didn't do a very good job tonight as the head football coach, and I have to do a much better job for this football team."

Given the train wreck he's inherited and the class with which he's handled it, almost no one will be more critical of O'Brien this year or for the next couple than he's been of himself.

Asked for specifics on areas in which he could have improved, O'Brien mentioned "the gameplan," and "adjusting better" and said he was anxious to "dive into that tape tomorrow [Sunday] and see what I can do better."

It will be curious what he concludes, but one area he ought to examine closely is the lack of patience he exhibited.

When you're an NFL offensive coordinator with one mission - to score 50 points, as O'Brien has said he was trying to do with New England each week - getting used to the ebb and flow of a developing defensive battle can be an adjustment.

That much was obvious Saturday night.

Penn State's defense was outstanding early and, were it not for a highly questionable and rarely called defensive holding during a punt, the Lions could have taken a 7-0 lead - at least - into halftime while getting the ball back to start the second half.

Instead, it was 7-7 and then 14-7 after Matt McGloin threw his first really bad interception of the season.

That's when O'Brien, down 14-10 and facing fourth-and-9 from the Buckeyes' 43, got too anxious.

Instead of again trying to pin Ohio State deep - something Alex Butterworth did well early with pooches to the Buckeyes' 3, 11, 6 and later to their 15 - O'Brien attempted a fake punt with Butterworth trying to hit Derek Day.

The Lions worked on it all week with Butterworth having Day or Mike Hull, who was open, as the option. It didn't work, and the Buckeyes quickly marched 57 yards over the shorter field to take a 21-10 lead and command.

Now, it's difficult to chide a guy for playing to win, and the fake punt did work at Virginia.

"We wanted to try to get something going," O'Brien said. "We had it. We just didn't execute it. It was a defensive game, and I was trying to get something going for our players on offense, and I need to do a better job."

O'Brien also passed on a possible 3-0 lead in the second quarter by rejecting a 37-yard field goal attempt after advancing to the Ohio State 20 and turning the ball over on downs.

"Like I said all year, I felt good with the play call we had," he said of that decision.

Sam Ficken is slowly regrouping from his disastrous game at Virginia (four misses), and he's now made three of the last four attempts he's tried with the one miss a 43-yarder that was blocked last week.

"My season hasn't gone the way I wanted to, but my mindset is I'm not going to miss another kick the rest of the season," Ficken said. "That's my goal. I dug myself into a hole at the beginning, and I'm trying to climb back out and every kick I make his confidence in me builds, and that's good for the team."

O'Brien may have shown confidence in Ficken by prematurely going for the 2-point conversion after the Lions cut the lead to 28-16. That would have meant a touchdown and a field goal would have tied the game, but the conversion failed.

"We made mistakes, but we win as a team and lose as a team," O'Brien said, "and it starts with me. We're all going to try to improve between tonight and Purdue."

To do so will take a little patience a little more than O'Brien showed against the Buckeyes.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or You can also follow him on Twitter@neilrudel.

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