O’Brien defends Butler at PSU press conference

UNIVERSITY PARK – Head coaches usually don’t like it when their assistants get criticized, and after Saturday’s historic 63-14 blowout loss at Ohio State, Penn State defensive coordinator John Butler has been a focal point of critics.

“That’s a bunch of crap that he’s taking heat,” O’Brien said Tuesday as he defended Butler.

O’Brien seemed unaware that Butler, in his first season as defensive coordinator, has been receiving criticism from fans on Internet message boards and from some media.

The Buckeyes piled up 686 yards on Penn State’s defense, the most allowed in program history, and the Nittany Lions were torched for 63 points, the most since 1899. Furthermore, PSU has allowed more than 40 points in three straight games for the first time since 1899.

“Saturday night was not the defense’s best night,” O’Brien said. “Let’s call it like it is.”

The coach did acknowledge some issues, including communication problems and that “there are some things our players need to do better.” But he outright dismissed the notion that Butler deserves the blame.

“As far as John Butler taking heat, I don’t know from who, but John Butler is a hell of a football coach,” O’Brien said. “John Butler is our defensive coordinator, works his tail off, the kids respect him. He’s doing a hell of a job.

“I don’t care what the scoreboard says or what the yardage says, this guy is our defensive coordinator. He’s my defensive coordinator. I’m proud to coach with him.”

Safety Jesse Della Valle also stood up for his defensive coordinator.

“I think I speak for every player on our team when we say we respect him and what he does for our team,” he said.

In trying to shield Butler from criticism, O’Brien did what many head coaches do. He blamed himself.

“If anybody should take heat, it’s Bill O’Brien, not John Butler,” he said. “I don’t know where that’s coming from, but hopefully that will get squelched.”

O’Brien is known as an offensive-minded coach, and he’s also the offensive coordinator, so one might wonder how involved he is with the defense overall and the defensive coaches.

“I meet with them every single day, seven days a week, two or three times a day, and we’re in constant communication during the game,” O’Brien said. “You have a headset on that can switch over between offense, defense, and that’s what you have. So we communicate all the time.”

SUBHD: Offense also to blame

While the defensive meltdown in Columbus received most of the attention in recent days, the fact that Penn State’s offense struggled against an Ohio State defense that had not been playing well was largely overlooked.

The Lions had to know that the Buckeyes, who came in averaging 45 points, would be able to score a lot. To compete against a team like that, PSU’s offense has to keep the pressure on by frequently getting into the end zone.

A big turning point in the game came on Penn State’s opening drive when, on third-and-5 from the 12, quarterback Christian Hackenberg was intercepted in the end zone. The Lions missed out on any points, and they rarely challenged the Ohio State defense the rest of the night.

O’Brien calls the plays, so again he took the blame for the struggles.

“It falls upon me,” he said. “I call the plays, and certainly, you go into a game like that and you’re playing an offense that’s very good, that scores a lot of points, you’ve got to score points. So I look in the mirror.

“Yeah, there’s certain things that certainly, some of the players obviously could have played better in a game like that. But that starts with me, and the whole game starts with me as the head football coach. Nobody understands that better than me.”

O’Brien said one focus for the coaches moving forward will be to “simplify” things for the players, although he didn’t elaborate on ways to do that.

“We have a lot of good players on both sides of the ball, but I think we just need to let them go play,” the coach said.

SUBHD: Competition for jobs

Left tackle Donovan Smith is in danger of losing his starting job as he’s listed as OR on the depth chart along with Garry Gilliam.

That’s one of 13 OR listings on the three-deep depth chart, so clearly the coaches are challenging players and keeping the competition open for starting jobs and key backup spots. The other notable OR is at defensive end between Deion Barnes and Anthony Zettel.

Asked about Smith, O’Brien said, “I don’t want to get into the specifics of how I think he’s played, but what I do think is you have three tackles there that have all done a decent job. You have Adam Gress, Garry Gilliam and Donovan that have had their bright spots and had their not-so-bright spots. So we’ve made that a very competitive situation this week, and that’s why you see the ORs there.”

SUBHD: Amos at CB

Adrian Amos moved from safety and played primarily at cornerback on Saturday, and that appears to be his position going forward.

“Adrian right now is best suited to play corner, and I think that gives us our best secondary back there,” O’Brien said.

SUBHD: Not a good bye

The Lions have had two bye weeks, and both times they got blown out in their next time game (44-24 at Indiana, then at Ohio State). O’Brien said the coaches will study that during the offseason.

“I believe that we’ve had two good practice weeks during those bye weeks, but obviously that didn’t translate into playing well,” he said. “I think when the season’s over, we’ve got to sit down and research what we did there, maybe ask around as far as what other people do.”