Nittany Lions face uphill climb
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Of the six losses Penn State has endured since Bill O’Brien inherited the carnage of the Nittany Lions’ program, clearly, this one was the most unexpected.
The 0-2 start (Ohio University-Virginia) in 2012 and subsequent regrouping that produced eight wins in the last 10 games with competitive losses to Ohio State and at Nebraska could be rationalized and were when O’Brien was voted the national coach of the year.
Even some of the sting of this season’s upset at the hands of Central Florida, at Beaver Stadium, was tempered by UCF’s solid showing against South Carolina.
Almost no one, though, saw Saturday’s 44-24 shellacking by Indiana coming, but with it comes the sobering reality of just where the Nittany Lions are right now.
And that’s a mediocre team, at best, facing an uphill climb just to avoid a losing season.
At 3-2 after being at times dominated by an Indiana team that had never beaten Penn State and spent most of the last two decades being virtually defenseless, the Nittany Lions’ confidence is shaken.
“We have about a 12-to-16 hour mourning period,” O’Brien said. “We’ll have to get over it and move on.”
To his credit, O’Brien shouldered all of the blame – several times as he patiently answered every question of the 13-minute session, easily the longest post-game press conference in memory.
“It starts with me – and I know I can do a better job,” he said. “We’ve got to get guys in better position to make plays on both sides of the ball. We didn’t play well. Didn’t coach well.”
That can’t be argued as the Lions didn’t commit to the run long enough and summoned Christian Hackenberg to attempt 55 passes.
O’Brien admitted, “We have to be more diverse in our running game.”
Then again, the offensive line was jittery with false starts and unable to mush Indiana.
Veteran guard John Urschel chose his words carefully and elected to credit the Hoosiers.
“We were ready,” he said. “They outperformed us.”
It would be unfair, however, to hang the entire loss on the offense. Though it kept the ball and actually converted 11-of-22 third-downs, previously a weakness, Saturday’s result can be attributed to breakdowns in every aspect.
The special teams botched a field-goal attempt and a potential 3-0 lead with a bad snap, later suffered a blocked field goal and fumbled away a last gasp, if Penn State really had one, in the fourth quarter.
The defense, while hanging tough early in forcing field-goal attempts, could not deliver the complementary football O’Brien often outlines. When the Lions tied the game in the second quarter and then took the lead in the third, each time the defense immediately surrendered a length-of-the-field drive.
“We need to get stops to change the momentum after we scored,” linebacker Mike Hull said. “We didn’t do that today.”
Though disappointed, the Penn State camp said it will lean on its resiliency, an intangible that carried it through the early darkness of last season – and last summer.
“It’s a long season,” O’Brien said. “We have seven games left. These kids have been through a lot. They’ll come back ready to go Monday.”
They want to think their past experience will serve them now – and it will need to with Michigan coming in Saturday followed by a trip to Ohio State.
November has five games, including trips to Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“We’ll bounce back and take on the rest of the Big Ten season,” Hull said.
Most figured the Lions for an 8-4 or 7-5 type of year, but most didn’t see UCF and Indiana combining for 78 points and going 2-0 against them.
“It hurts big,” linebacker Glenn Carson said. “But when you look at last year, we started the season off 0-2, and we came back and had a pretty successful year. The type of guys we have, I’m sure we’re going to bounce back.”
While wanting to set an optimistic tone, O’Brien is also trying to spread some realism. He mentioned a couple of times this week that the current squad is made up of just 61 scholarship players and “can’t go to a bowl game.”
“By no one’s stretch is this a normal Penn State team,” he said. “But we show up every day and work hard. There are a lot of fantastic, resilient kids here, and there’s still a hard-working attitude.The [emotional] reserve is still there.”
It will need to be as there’s no escaping that the Lions are functioning with a depleted roster.
In Hackenberg, they have a quarterback who will be a great one someday, but is still “seeing everything for the first time,” O’Brien said.
They’ve played parts or all of games without veteran leaders Hull (knee), Ryan Keiser (wrist), Matt Lehman (knee), Allen Robinson, who tweaked his back Saturday, and Brandon Felder, who suffered an ankle injury last week.
It’s why O’Brien’s margin for error is slim.
“We coached average today,” he said, “and in this situation, we can’t coach average.”
During his extended post-game confab, O’Brien also admitted that the team’s plight, “is what it is.”
And on this Saturday, that included a 20-point loss, once unthinkable, to an Indiana team cheered on by a half-full stadium.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.