PSU coach finds the positive in 6-5 season

Bill O’Brien won’t be thankful for a 6-6 season, which is how Penn State will finish if it loses Saturday at No. 14 Wisconsin.

O’Brien won’t be thankful that a 6-6 season would be two fewer wins than the consensus prediction for the Nittany Lions.

O’Brien won’t be thankful that his team has gotten clobbered at times and, with a loss Saturday, would finish the season with an 0-4 record on the road.

“You are what your record says you are,” O’Brien said. “So we’re a 6-5 team, barely above .500, with a chance to be 7-5 or 6-6.”

Those are the cold facts, and for most major college football programs, there wouldn’t be a lot to be thankful for about such a season.

But on this Thanksgiving, O’Brien is thankful. Very thankful, and for good reason.

About the big picture.

About the future.

And about how the PSU program has weathered an incredible storm of adversity during his first two tumultuous seasons.

“I feel really good about where the program’s at,” O’Brien said this week.

He then went on to talk about how recruiting has gone well, how the young players in the program are primed for success down the road, how so many players have gained valuable experience this year and how the team will have a number of quality veterans back next year.

“With the two-year sanctions that we’ve been under and things like that, with the limited amount of guys we could offer and guys that’s left the program, I think our program stands on pretty solid ground right now,” O’Brien said.

That’s saying plenty, given that just 16 months ago the NCAA levied what appeared to be devastating sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

It’s debatable whether this should be considered a successful or disappointing season for Penn State. A win at Wisconsin would go a long way to making it successful, but since the Lions are 24-point underdogs, the debate likely will be about a 6-6 team.

“It is what it is at this point,” linebacker Mike Hull said when asked if a 6-6 record would be a disappointment.

“It’s been an up-and-down year. But I think really over the last few games we can see improvement with our team, and that’s really the main thing. We’re improving in the right direction, and we’re setting up for the future and for next year.”

Even O’Brien stopped short of declaring the season a success.

“Certainly the season has had its ups and downs,” he said. “It hasn’t been a consistent season. But I do think there’s been a lot of positives. Success or not a success, I’m not getting into that.”

The coach did address the things he’s thankful for and mentioned his family first. Then he ran through a list of the football aspects.

“I’m thankful for this football team, these players,” he said. “I really am. I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoy coaching these guys. I wish that some of these games had gone our way, but they didn’t. It is what it is.

“I’m very thankful to come in here every day and coach these guys. I really am. I’m thankful for that. I’ve made some good friends here at Penn State and State College. I’m thankful for that.”

Penn State’s players have to be thankful they’re not in class this week and that the semester is winding down. The team went out together and saw the movie “Thor: The Dark World” on Monday night, and after a morning practice today, everyone will gather for a Thanksgiving meal.

“It’s actually nice,” Hull said of the quiet on campus this week. “You’re just with your teammates the whole week just kind of hanging out, playing video games whenever you’re not at practice. … So it’s fun. It’s more laid back and relaxing whenever you don’t have to worry about class and being all over campus.”

It’s off to Madison, Wis., on Friday and another very cold (37 degrees) day for the season finale. Vegas thinks the Lions will be thankful just to stay close against the Badgers, as the 24-point line is the largest PSU has faced as an underdog since joining the Big Ten.

“They’re a really good team,” quarterback Christian Hackenberg said. “They’re athletic. I would think they don’t make many mistakes. They play really well together. So we have to focus offensively on not making mistakes and just keeping and stringing drives together one play at a time.”