Lions have little margin for error

UNIVERSITY PARK – Bill O’Brien uttered a three-word phrase Tuesday that, albeit brief, essentially explains the challenge that Penn State faces this season and probably next year, as well.

It’s all about, as the coach said, margin for error.

As in, given their limitations, the Nittany Lions have a very small one if they want to beat good competition.

“In our four losses, the four teams that we’ve played have a 30-8 record,” O’Brien said. “When you play a schedule like that, you don’t have a lot of margin for error.”

That would be true of just about any college football team, but Penn State’s margin for error is even smaller because of the sanctions and reduced scholarships.

When the Lions have injuries, turnovers and fail to execute, the already slim margin for error becomes non-existent. Those three things plagued Penn State on Saturday at Minnesota, and O’Brien admitted he was frustrated after a game that would have been winnable had the Lions not made so many mistakes.

“I think I was just frustrated because of how that game went,” O’Brien said. “I just felt like our defense came out and played well, and we drove the ball, and I’m just very frustrated when we don’t score touchdowns. That was my frustration.”

Penn State made big improvements as the season went along last year, overcoming an 0-2 start to go 8-4 and closing with a big win over Wisconsin. That team, however, had a much bigger margin for error because it had a senior quarterback in Matt McGloin, experienced leaders on defense such as Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges and Jordan Hill, and a superb senior class.

This year’s team doesn’t have those things, plus there are fewer scholarship players (61), which leads to more depth issues. This team also hasn’t been efficient on offense, particularly in the red zone as quarterback Christian Hackenberg has struggled, and all of those factors have contributed to the losses.

“I don’t think you can compare one team to the next,” O’Brien said. “Every team is different. Every year is different. I think this football team has improved in some areas, and other areas it hasn’t improved, and I think a lot of that is that we have to do a better job of coaching.”

SUBHD: LB Kline out

It’s been a tough year for linebacker Ben Kline, who has battled a shoulder injury and now will miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle Saturday. Kline continued to play even though the injury occurred on the second play of the game.

“I can’t say enough about him,” O’Brien said. “He is a tremendous kid, and he’s a 4.0 student. We’re going to miss him out there.”

Kline will have surgery on the torn pectoral this week, then at a later point will have to have shoulder surgery.

SUBHD: Receiver watch

O’Brien confirmed that star receiver Allen Robinson did suffer a minor left shoulder injury Saturday, but he is expected to play this week against Purdue.

Robinson is having an outstanding season (73 catches for 1,106 yards and six TDs), but there’s a big dropoff between him and all the other receiving targets.

Brandon Felder has 27 catches for 293 yards, but he couldn’t haul in a couple of key throws in the loss Saturday. After that, the next-highest total is 17 catches by tight end Jesse James.

O’Brien has said that Robinson isn’t always the primary target, but with some of the other receivers not stepping up, it’s understandable that Hackenberg would always be on the lookout for his star wideout.

“I think there’s been improvement with our receivers, I really do,” O’Brien said. “I think Brandon has had some chances to make plays and probably wishes he made some more of those plays, but he works extremely hard. He’s a good route runner, and he came out to practice [Monday] and made some plays.

“Richy [Anderson] and Eugene [Lewis] are both young receivers, and it’s not the easiest thing in the world to come in and play wide receiver right away in any offense, not just the offenses that we run, and they’ve improved every week.”

Lewis appeared to be on a path to having a big season early, but he hasn’t been much of a factor lately and has only 11 catches for 115 yards, with 54 of those coming on one play. O’Brien said Lewis will get more playing time this week.

“Eugene has practiced hard, and he has a lot of ability,” O’Brien said. “He’s only a redshirt freshman, so he’s got a lot of time left. He’s got three years left here. I think everybody expects redshirt freshmen to jump in and start and play right away, and in some cases it’s hard to do that. You have to learn the plays and you have to perform well in practice.”

SUBHD: News and notes

Bill Belton is listed as the first-string running back, despite fumbling on the first play against Minnesota and giving way to Zach Zwinak, who had 150 yards. With Kline out, Nyeem Wartman and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong figure to man that outside linebacker spot. RB Akeel Lynch returned to practice Monday after battling a knee injury.