Lions look to play better on the road

Penn State has lost badly the past two times it went on the road, to Indiana and Ohio State, and will need to play much better to come away with a win against a surging Minnesota squad Saturday.

“Obviously we haven’t played as well on the road,” PSU coach Bill O’Brien said Tuesday. “It’s hard to pinpoint why. Hopefully that changes.”

The Nittany Lions opened the season with a neutral-site game against Syracuse at the Meadowlands and turned in a shaky performance in a 23-17 win. The trips to Bloomington and Columbus saw PSU get crushed, 44-24 against Indiana and 63-13 against Ohio State.

Minnesota enters Saturday’s game coming off three straight Big Ten wins, the last a 42-39 decision at Indiana against the same team that beat PSU by 20. The Golden Gophers beat Nebraska, 34-23, the last time they were at home two weeks ago, so winning at TCF Bank Stadium will be a tough task for the Lions, who are two-point underdogs.

Penn State tackle Adam Gress said the team’s poor play on the road hasn’t been a result of the location.

“I wouldn’t say it really has that much to do with being on the road as it does just how the game went,” Gress said.

Whatever the case, the Lions (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) will have to find a way to win their first true road game or else fall below .500 in the conference.

“I think we’ve been prepared for these games on the road,” O’Brien said. “I know that these guys came out [Monday] and practiced really well. I think we’ll string some good practices together and be ready to go on Saturday.”

Quarterback connection

O’Brien opened up a bit about his relationship with quarterback Christian Hackenberg, a highly touted recruit who has looked great at times this season but also has had some growing pains.

Hackenberg is a true freshman, so inconsistency is to be expected, and O’Brien tries to keep all of that in mind when his quarterback makes mistakes.

“We have a close relationship,” O’Brien said. “Obviously I recruited him and have been in his living room and know his family. So it’s a difficult situation that he’s in, just being a freshman and playing major college football at that position for the first time.

“I’ll be the first to tell you that many times I definitely in the beginning of the year had to be more patient with him. I think overall, I do believe I’ve improved on that with him, and I try to get him over to the bench and sit down with him and talk to him about the previous series, and I think that’s helped.”

Hackenberg is averaging 253 yards passing per game, has completed 58.4 percent and has thrown 13 TDs with eight interceptions. He looked rattled playing at Ohio State in his first major road test, going 12-for-23 for just 112 yards, two interceptions and one TD, and he also had accuracy issues in the loss at Indiana despite finishing 30-for-55 for 340 yards and three TDs.

“When he makes a mistake that I know he knows what to do on or he makes the mistake twice or something, it doesn’t happen very often, that’s when I lose my patience a little bit with him,” O’Brien said. “I think he gets that. But we have a very good, honest, open relationship.”

SUBHD: Believing in Belton

Bill Belton is coming off a career-best 201 yards against Illinois and has solidified, for now at least, the starting running back job. Belton entered last season as the No. 1 running back but had a disappointing year and was overtaken by Zach Zwinak, but Zwinak’s fumble problems and Belton’s strong running of late have reversed things in the backfield.

Belton came to Penn State as a receiver, but after O’Brien got the job, it didm’t take him long to realize Belton would be better suited as a running back.

“I think it was the very first morning,” O’Brien said. “We had a lot of change of direction type drills to really try to evaluate these guys and see where we would put them. Again, just to remind you, I didn’t watch any film really on these guys before I got here. So I was just trying to give everybody a clean slate.

“So when I watched Billy, I saw a kid that was 5-11, maybe 185, 190 pounds, and a thick-looking guy. I said, ‘What position was he?’ They said he was a slot receiver and a wildcat quarterback. I said, I think looking at our running back situation, at that time, I said, ‘Why don’t we try him at running back?’ And that’s when we moved him.”

SUBHD: Lynch injured

Third-string running back Akeel Lynch sprained an MCL in his knee against Ohio State and is day-to-day, O’Brien said. Lynch did not play against Illinois.

This hasn’t been the kind of breakthrough season many people expected from Lynch, who hasn’t received much playing time. He has carried for 305 yards on 46 carries, with 123 of those yards coming in one game, a 34-0 win over Kent State.

SUBHD: Beating the odds

Former PSU quarterback Matt McGloin played in his first regular-season NFL game Sunday for the Oakland Raiders, completing 7-of-15 passes for 87 yards.

Aside from Kerry Collins, McGloin threw and completed more passes in that game than all former PSU quarterbacks have combined in the NFL since 1995.

“I couldn’t be more proud of Matt McGloin,” O’Brien said. “A self-made guy, competitive guy. He deserves everything he’s getting, and maybe he’ll get his shot to start. Nothing that he does surprises me, and it shouldn’t surprise anybody. He’s a guy that’s worked very hard to get where he’s at.”