O’Brien focusing on positives, deflects criticism away from players

UNIVERSITY PARK – The line of questioning started focusing on areas of concern for Penn State after Saturday’s mistake-filled 23-17 win over Syracuse, so Bill O’Brien attempted to switch the narrative to deflect criticism away from his players.

The coach doesn’t want people to forget about the many obstacles the Nittany Lions face trying to win games, and he reminded everyone of that Tuesday.

“I think it’s important to look at the positives,” O’Brien said before running through a list of things his team overcame.

He talked about his squad finding a way to win despite being on the road, with a freshman quarterback, playing in 104-degree temperature, playing without the team’s best receiver in the first half and playing with limited scholarships.

“I just think we should be talking about that a lot,” O’Brien said. “I think what’s going on here – look, it’s just one game, but I think it’s an important subject to make sure that we all understand how, again [that] we got a great bunch of kids that have stayed committed to Penn State, and I think it’s great fun to be around them.”

The Lions’ concerns are legitimate – they turned it over four times and went 1-for-16 on third down against Syracuse – but O’Brien understands the balance he has to have in keeping things positive at a time when the program still faces so many negative aspects.

He has never been one to make excuses about the NCAA sanctions, and O’Brien does seem to be keenly aware of how important it is to deflect negative attention away from his players when it comes to football matters.

All coaches have to find the right balance of not being overly critical when a team struggles so much during a win, as the Lions did Saturday. O’Brien could rip the players for all their mistakes, but instead he has no problem publicly falling on his sword and taking the blame when things go wrong.

“Monday we go through the film, and I show mistakes that they made, and I certainly show mistakes that I made,” he said. “Nobody in this program makes more mistakes than me, and I tell the guys that. That’s important.”

On many occasions, O’Brien has taken the blame for things that, on the surface, don’t appear to be his fault. For instance, he defended the offensive line Tuesday when asked about why the running game struggled.

“The offensive line, when the play was called properly and the right play was put into the game, the offensive line blocked very well,” he said. “We have a very good offensive line. The problem was the coaching; starts with me.”

A coach taking the blame can work to a degree, but ultimately the players have to be held accountable for when they make mistakes. The public doesn’t see that critical side of O’Brien, but the players do.

“He is balanced,” center Ty Howle said of O’Brien. “He sees the positives and the negatives because, obviously, you’ve got to see the negatives and correct them to get any better.”

Regardless of the struggles against the Orange, Penn State won the game, and O’Brien emphasized that point Tuesday.

“Winning is the most important thing, and we won the football game,” he said. “It’s like saltwater; it cures everything.”

The coach then added one of his several jokes when he told a reporter, “You’re from Pennsylvania, so you don’t even know about saltwater, but I’m from the Cape.”

Injury update

Tight end Matt Lehman is out for the season after suffering a left knee injury Saturday. He’s a senior who began his career at Shippensburg before transferring to Penn State and making the team at a tryout.

“I just absolutely love guys like that, guys that overcame the odds,” O’Brien said.

Linebacker Mike Hull (knee) and tight end Kyle Carter (left arm) are day to day. O’Brien said he’s not sure if Carter can play Saturday, but he told BTN on Monday that Hull is probable.

The Lions entered the season with great depth at tight end, but Brent Wilkerson (back) is out for the season along with Lehman, and now Carter is ailing. They still have Jesse James and Adam Breneman, but the group is not as strong because of the injuries.

“It doesn’t limit us,” O’Brien said.

It could change personnel groupings or force other moves, but the coaches are always thinking about contingency plans.

“I don’t think it’s as much about limiting, it’s more about being able to think out of the box and put guys on the right spots,” O’Brien said.

4th down confession

O’Brien’s best line of the day came when he admitted that going for it on fourth-and-1 in the first quarter was a mistake.

“I will disclose there, the first time we went for it, I thought we got the first down on the previous play,” he said.

Then the coach added a classic pop culture reference.

“It was like Belushi in ‘Animal House,’ just let him go, like when they bombed Pearl Harbor.”

For the uninitiated, John Belushi’s character stands and proclaims, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

The mistake is caught by another character, who says, “Germans?”

“Forget it, he’s rolling,” a third character says.

News and notes

Garry Gilliam and Adam Gress are still battling for the starting right tackle job. The depth chart this week lists Gilliam as the starter, but O’Brien said it is still an “or” situation.

Redshirt freshman Akeel Lynch didn’t appear in Saturday’s game at running back.

“See how the game goes,” O’Brien said when asked when Lynch could play. “He’s a great kid, working hard in practice, and we continue to evaluate that position every day.”